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From The Ground Up

Farmer's Death Lifts Restrictions on Property

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page E03

Developers have long salivated over 138 rolling acres on Route 28 in Rockville that are surrounded by housing and major highways. But the land's owner, Elizabeth Beall Banks, a feisty farmer and former schoolteacher, spent most of her 93 years fighting to protect it from developers.

Banks once scared county planning officials off her land with a shotgun. Another time she stood in front of bulldozers, hugging trees to stop development around her. She turned down numerous lucrative offers to turn the grassy fields into a housing development. And she complained, vehemently, at times, in letters and phone calls to politicians, planners and most anyone who would listen when her land was taken by eminent domain and fences for her cattle were pushed back to widen roads in the traffic-clogged area.

Elizabeth Beall Banks turned down numerous offers to turn her farm, one of the last open tracts in Montgomery County, into a housing project. (Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)

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Banks died Jan. 17, lifting the one restriction on developing her land -- that the farm known as Belward not be developed until after her death. It is one of the large remaining tracts of land in Montgomery County.

Sixteen years ago, she sold the property that had been in her family since the late 1800s for $5 million, far less than its estimated $40 million market value at the time, to Johns Hopkins University, with a few conditions.

The university could eventually develop the land, which sits in the middle of the Interstate 270 corridor, into a major center of medical research, but it had to build her a white rambler to live in next to her old, drafty farmhouse. She would live on the bulk of the land, 100 acres, and raise her 80 cattle until she died.

Hopkins and county and state officials developed only a small part of the property, about 30 acres, a few years ago. It is occupied by Human Genome Sciences Inc., one of the county's best-known biotechnology companies. Now Hopkins plans to turn the rest of the land into an academic and research park that could reap as much as $12 billion in income over the next 12 years, Hopkins officials and county planners said.

"We respected her as the tenant of the land," said Elaine Amir, director of Hopkins's 36-acre campus in Montgomery County, near the Banks farm. "While she was there on the land, we left it as she wished."

There are no definite plans to begin construction, but one thing is certain: The black Angus cattle that Banks loved to watch stroll by her back porch will be gone.

"It would be very surprising if it retains a character as a working farm," said Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman. The Victorian farmhouse that Banks grew up in and the barn will be preserved. Some of the land will be kept as open space, university officials said. They are unsure what will become of the handful of tenant houses on the property.

Another 1.5 million square feet of commercial buildings can be built on the site, according to initial county plans from 1997, and there was talk of putting a small conference center there, too. Hopkins officials said the buildings are likely to be three- or four-stories high and look like a campus, similar to the nearby Shady Grove Life Sciences Park, which is home to some major biotech companies, including BioReliance Corp. and the Institute for Genomic Research.

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