Local lore has it that Elizabeth Beall Banks once chased developers off her Gaithersburg area farm with a shotgun when they came around asking questions.
But even back then, Banks — well known for her opposition to suburban sprawl — knew it would only be a temporary victory. The same forces that gobbled up other parcels of land around her and turned them into housing tracts, business parks and shopping centers would eventually threaten her 138-acre Belward Farm.
Rather than sell it to the highest bidder, her heirs said, she sold it to Johns Hopkins University — a suitor she believed would protect the farm where she raised Black Angus cattle from the development she detested.
Now, nearly seven years after her death, her family and the university are at odds over what is to be built on the remaining 108-acre parcel, nestled in the midst of the county’s booming research corridor along Interstate 270.
Banks’s heirs have sued to block the university’s plan to build a 4.7 million-square-foot research and development campus, saying that it violates the terms of the contract signed with their aunt in 1989. Johns Hopkins officials maintain that the plans are in keeping with the agreement. The two sides are scheduled to appear in court Wednesday. Hopkins is asking a judge to either dismiss the suit or to grant summary judgment.
“We’re very confident our approach is consistent with our obligations, [and] also with [Montgomery County’s] strategy for the future,” said Hopkins spokeswoman Robin Ferrier.
Johns Hopkins University purchased the property from Banks in 1989 for $5 million — a fraction of its $54 million market value, the suit says. It took university officials two years to convince Banks to sell. Her family contends that she agreed only because she believed that the university intended to build a satellite campus on the bucolic property, a project that Banks, a former Montgomery County teacher, endorsed.
“It wasn’t about the money,” said Tim Newell, Banks’s nephew, who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “This was about leaving a legacy for the family, protecting the property and doing a good thing for a very good university.”
David Brown, the family’s attorney, concedes the deed that conveyed the property, a simple, two-page document, did not specify that a satellite campus be constructed on the property. The language in the deed says only that 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.”
But he argues that the university’s subsequent actions — having the property rezoned for development, combined with the preliminary plan it submitted to the county in 1997 — eliminated any question of the parties’ intentions for the property. Those plans called for 17 two- to four-story buildings, a total of about 1.4 million square feet.
“In our view, any uncertainty of what was intended was resolved by the  plan,” Brown said. “There’s no way that any such tripling of the density of the property was [contemplated by] the parties.”
In addition, as part of the agreement, he noted that Banks gave permission for university officials to carve off a 30-acre parcel that they could develop as they chose. Hopkins gave that parcel, which has since been developed, to the county.
In court papers, university officials maintain that the deed places no limitations on the size of the development on the site. And, although the deed prohibits the university from selling the property for 50 years from the date the agreement was signed, it does not place limits on the university’s ability to lease to other parties. Conversations are underway with possible tenants, Ferrier said, but the work of those who ultimately will occupy the development will focus on areas such as medical and academic research outlined in the original deed.
The family says the university’s plans violate the spirit of the agreement.
University officials said their vision for the property has evolved, just as the county’s vision for the area has shifted. The Belward Farm property is a key component of the county’s ambitious $10 billion, 17.5 million-square-foot “science city” development — an effort officials hope will expand Montgomery’s reputation as a hub for bioscience research. The goal is to create a development where people can work, live and shop — linked together by a new rapid transit system.
County officials have declined to comment about the lawsuit, saying it is a matter for the university and Banks’s family to resolve.
But Diane Schwartz-Jones, director of the Department of Permitting Services for Montgomery County, whose previous work focused on the science city project, said that if the family prevails in its efforts to block the development, it could limit the county’s ability to compete with other jurisdictions. She said that adding square footage to the development was a more efficient and environmentally friendly use of the land.
Newell said the family doesn’t want to stand in the way of Hopkins’s plan to build on the parcel, but it feels obligated to hold the university to the original agreement.
“All these times she succeeded in protecting [the land],” Newell said. “Now the people she trusted are doing the very thing she didn’t want done to it.”
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