When she died in 2005 at 93, eulogists hailed Elizabeth Beall Banks as one of Montgomery County’s most colorful anti-development activists.
The retired schoolteacher was so determined to protect her Gaithersburg dairy farm from becoming another patch of suburban sprawl that she once chased county planning officials off her land with a shotgun.
So it’s sad that Banks’s deepest wish — to prevent overbuilding on what are now rolling, grassy fields at Belward Farm — is at severe risk of being bulldozed.
And it’s doubly sad, and even shameful, that the culprit that might betray her is the very institution that she trusted to honor her desires: Johns Hopkins University.
Johns Hopkins filed initial plans with the county this year to build a dense cluster of buildings, some up to 12 stories high, on farmland it bought from Banks in 1989. Many or most of the buildings are expected to be leased by the university to private companies or other parties. The complex would be an anchor of the ambitious “science city” that Montgomery wants to develop as one of its signature economic initiatives.
But Banks’s heirs filed suit Nov. 10 to block the Belward Farm plan. They said it broke the terms of the contract under which the late activist sold her 69 percent stake in the land to the university at a tenth of its value 22 years ago. (Two family members sold their stakes in the same deal.)
The heirs said Johns Hopkins was ignoring Banks’s desire that Johns Hopkins would use the land for a leafy, academic satellite campus, with more space and smaller buildings.
“We had agreed it would be a Johns Hopkins-owned and -occupied college campus. In the original plan, they showed two- to four-story buildings, lots of open space, students walking around,” said Tim Newell, who is Banks’s nephew and the lead plaintiff.
Instead, Newell said, Johns Hopkins is proposing “development that will be citylike and have office, retail and research [buildings], and none of it will be occupied by Johns Hopkins.”
The suit doesn’t ask for money, except to cover court costs. Its aim is to force the university to respect what the heirs say was the most important last request of the woman they called “Aunt Liz.”
“When she was dying, she asked me, ‘Make sure you see this through for me,’ ” Newell said.
A Montgomery County Circuit Court will decide whether Johns Hopkins is within its legal rights. The university says it is honoring the language in the contract and deed that Banks signed back in 1989 — and I’ve got to agree that the wording seems pretty open-ended.
The deed says the land’s use must be limited to “agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes only.” That seems to leave a lot of wiggle room, especially that phrase “related purposes.”
The deed goes on to say that the land could host a university research campus but is not limited to that.
The heirs’ attorney, David Brown of the Rockville firm Knopf & Brown, said Banks let Johns Hopkins draw up the contract. He acknowledged that she may have been too trusting.
However, he plans to argue that the contract and deed are “capable of more than one meaning, and so therefore you have to look at what the parties intended.”
By that standard, it’s easy to pick sides.
Banks spurned more lucrative offers for the property because she had confidence that Johns Hopkins would treat it right. The university paid $5 million for the 138-acre farm, when it was estimated to be worth more than $50 million.
Banks felt a special attachment to Johns Hopkins partly because an old boyfriend had gone there. The university’s medical center treated her mother for lung cancer.
“I thought Hopkins would take good care of it,” Banks said of the farm in 2001.
She was mostly comfortable with a 1997 plan that provided for 1.7 million square feet of office space on the site. The new plan, prepared since she passed away, foresees up to 4.6 million square feet.
Newell said the dispute has arisen partly because the people who negotiated the deal with his aunt are no longer around. “The new regime interprets the restrictions in whatever way benefits them,” he said.
Whatever the reason, we can be be pretty confident what Banks would think. This is a woman who once literally hugged trees while trying to block them from being destroyed.
If the university wins, it will be because it hoodwinked a woman in her late 70s who was trying to do the school a favor. In that case, if I were Johns Hopkins, I’d watch out for the ghost of Liz Banks returning for revenge. Maybe with a shotgun.
I’m taking a break. I return New Year’s Day with my annual “Predictions” quiz for 2012.