When Tim Newell was a child, he spent countless hours on his family’s farm in Montgomery County. A sizeable chunk of that time was spent
mowing lawns and white washing fence posts, but it was idyllic nonetheless.
Today Newell isn’t so happy.
His family donated the 138-acre farm to Johns Hopkins University in 1989, selling it for $5 million when it was worth many times that. The sale was contingent upon the university using the vast majority of the property, called the Belward Farm, for educational and research purposes. This was required largely, Newell says, because his family members had grown increasingly anti-development as they watched their rural Maryland neighborhood transform into a modern suburb around them.
Last week, Newell and his family sued Hopkins in Montgomery County Circuit Court for what he called gross violations of those contingencies. In formulating plans for the farm, he said Johns Hopkins has morphed from acting as an academic institution respectful of the desires of its donors, to a commercial real estate developer intent primarily on making money. Or, exactly what he says his aunt, uncle and mother wanted to prevent from overtaking the farm when they made the gift.
“The donor intent was extremely clear, and if they had wanted it developed at the time, they wouldn’t have put any restrictions on it,” Newell said.
A Johns Hopkins spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit Tuesday because she said the university had not yet been served.
Newell said that in 1997, the university and the family had agreed on a plan to build a 1.4 million-square-foot satellite campus for the university on Belward Farm. Now the plan is for 4.7 million square feet, which county officials envision as the anchor to a “Science City.” The county planning board approved the larger version in July and Steve Silverman, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, said he does not expect the lawsuit to thwart those plans.
“We’re expecting that at the end of the day Hopkins will be able to help us achieve our life sciences goals,” he said.
Newell, who lives in New Jersey, said any hope of negotiating changes with the university had long passed. He and his family have taken their case to the county council multiple times, to no avail. “I don’t know how we could have prevented this. It’s just sad that someone has good intentions and someone else takes advantage of it down the road,” he said.
What Newell does have on his side is a burning desire to try to fulfill the wishes of relatives who have since passed. About his mother, who died in the spring, he said: “She was adamant about fighting this.”
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