Lawsuit strikes at heart of Montgomery County’s ‘science city’

A core piece of Montgomery County’s vaunted plans to build a “science city” has ended up in court.

When it was approved by the county council in spring of 2010, the Great Seneca Science Corridor master plan envisioned a $10 billion research and development center that would rival industry hubs such as North Carolina’s Research Triangle or Palo Alto, Calif. Johns Hopkins University expected to play a major role.

But the university’s plans to develop the 138-acre Belward Farm may have run afoul of the terms under which the school received the property from a longtime Montgomery County family.

Tim Newell’s family granted the 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. But Newell and his family sued Hopkins in Montgomery County Circuit Court Nov. 10 for what he called gross violations of those contingencies.

Newell 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. He said he hopes the lawsuit forces the university to adjust its plans. “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.


The 138-acre Belward Farm, which Johns Hopkins University received from a Montgomery County family. (Donna Baron/The Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition)

A Johns Hopkins spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit.

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.

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.


A house on Belward Farm in West Gaithersburg. (Donna Baron/The Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition)

Newell 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.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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