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Farmer's Death Lifts Restrictions on Property

David W. Edgerly, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, said he envisions associations and companies that focus on information technology, homeland security, defense, biotech and other medical research becoming tenants of Belward Farm.

Real estate brokers and developers agreed that there will be a market for a research park at Belward, as the Shady Grove park has little space and companies are looking to expand.

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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"It's a premier site," said Ken Berkman, executive vice president of Scheer Partners, a commercial real estate firm that specializes in developing biotech parks and office buildings. "It's got great access to Interstate 270 and there are few large parcels like this that allow for dense development close in" on I-270.

Banks's great-grandfather, Ignatius Beall Ward, bought the farm and surrounding land in the late 1800s while serving as the first postmaster of a small town that is now part of Rockville. Banks came to Belward at 15 with her parents, brother and sister after a tornado ruined her family's farm in Howard County.

Throughout her life, Banks had an old-school way of speaking. She often referred to Howard as "the land of her people" and was buried there Thursday after a funeral service in Rockville.

Growing up, she farmed with her father. as an adult, after teaching school all day, she would change into overalls and plow fields, rake hay and feed her dairy cattle. She never married or had children.

In 1958, an aunt who lived in Canada died and left the bulk of the farm to Banks. She pledged never to sell it to developers, especially for housing developments, which she hated, and watched as her fellow farmers sold out.

"Liz always loved the land," said her sister Beulah B. Newell, who lives in Pennsylvania. "We made the decision that the land would never, ever be developed" for houses.

She continued to farm well into her eighties and kept her house, barns, fields and tenant houses immaculate. Even in her later years, she walked the edge of her property, picking up trash passersby threw from car windows.

At her funeral, a close friend laughed and told a room packed with relatives, other long-time Montgomery farmers, Banks's caretakers, farm workers, friends and former students, of a recent visit to Belward.

While touring one of her barns, Banks told the visitor, "I'm sorry for the cobwebs. I haven't been able to keep up with them lately." She had been ill.

Banks decided to sell her land to the university after a Hopkins official approached her. She and her mother, who died of lung cancer in 1962, were treated at Hopkins and she said she respected the staff and the medicine they did.

"I thought Hopkins would take good care of it," Banks told a reporter in 2001. "When you say Johns Hopkins, people know who you're talking about. I didn't want to just give it away to a school anywhere."

But years after reaching the deal with Hopkins, she became angry at school officials, claiming that they had torn down a buffer of trees they had promised to keep in place to block her view of the brick buildings that Human Genome Sciences is in. Some of her friends say she still held a grudge over the trees being destroyed, even though they were later replaced by saplings.

A close friend, Merle Steiner, said: "She cried over not being able to preserve it as a farm."

"Giving it to Hopkins made her feel like she was leaving at least some legacy," she said. "She had a very strong sense of history and she was very proud of her land. She loved those cows. She would not let go. She wanted to continue the heritage of the farm."

Dana Hedgpeth writes about economic development and commercial real estate. Her e-mail address is hedgpethd@washpost.com.

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