Farm buildings at Belward Farm. Photo by jrfinesimages on Flickr.

The family that donated land in Montgomery County to the Johns Hopkins University for a research campus is now suing to stop development of part of the sprawling “Science City.”

Science City is Montgomery County’s plan for 60,000 jobs in a sprawling suburban development five miles from the Shady Grove Metro stop. It’s far from most of the county’s population centers. It’s near the Agricultural Reserve. One day it is supposed to be transit-oriented around the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). Of course, the CCT is still in the concept stage, and developers aren’t waiting for it.

The unlikely location of Science City is primarily due to Elizabeth Banks and two of her siblings. In 1989, they donated their historic 138-acre, $54 million Belward Farm to JHU for use as the “Belward Campus of the Johns Hopkins University”, in return for $5 million. If a university campus doesn’t sound like a Science City to you, you are not alone. Last month, the donors’ heirs filed suit against JHU.

The heirs are asking the Montgomery County Circuit Court for declarative and injunctive relief in order to stop JHU’s implementation of development plans for the Belward Farm property, on grounds that the plans violate the donors’ intent as shown in both the sales contract and the deed of conveyance.

According to the 1988 contract of sale and 1989 deed of conveyance, provided to me by one of the heirs, Tim Newell, there were no limits for the “use or dispos[al]” of the eastern 30 acres of Belward Farm. However, the proceeds of “any such sale or disposition” were to be “used to create or add to a fund established in the name of Elizabeth B. Banks for the benefit of” JHU.

Use of the western 108 acres of the property was restricted to “agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes only, which uses may specifically include but not be limited to development of a research campus in affiliation with one or more divisions” of JHU. This part was to be known as the “Belward Campus of the Johns Hopkins University”. JHU was to preserve “an appropriate wooded and fenced buffer area” between the western and eastern parts of the property.

The use restrictions on the western part were “a covenant running with the land”. However, if JHU violated the restrictions, the violation would not “result in a forfeiture or reversion of the fee simple title to the land”.

And so, in 1989, JHU became the owner of Belward Farm. Then what happened?

In July 1990, Montgomery County approved the Shady Grove Study Area Master Plan, which proposed “expansion of the R&D Village concept west of I-270 to include [JHU’s] proposed Belward Research Campus on the Banks Farm”.

JHU accordingly applied for and received a rezoning of the property from low-density residential (R-200) to an office/research zone (R&D). According to the lawsuit, the donors “cooperated in [the rezoning] in the expectation that it would facilitate the college campus development of [the western part of the property]”.

In March 1997, the Planning Board approved a preliminary plan of subdivision for the property, which JHU now called the “Johns Hopkins Belward Research Campus”. The plan proposed a maximum of 1.8 million square feet of gross developed area, described in the lawsuit as representing “about 99.7% of the maximum development allowed under the then-existing R&D zoning [an FAR of 0.3]”. Again, the donors did not object to this plan.

But JHU did not apply for final approval of this plan. Instead, according to the lawsuit, JHU and Montgomery County reached an understanding that was recorded on the deed to the eastern part of the property: JHU would donate the eastern part of the property to Montgomery County, in return for the county’s support for development of the western part.

According to the lawsuit, this understanding violated the donors’ intent in two ways.

First, Elizabeth Banks had told JHU before the sale that she opposed Montgomery County’s efforts to control development of Belward Farm — part of which the county now owned, thanks to JHU’s donation.

Second, although the sales contract specified that proceeds from the disposition of the land must go to the establishment of an Elizabeth B. Banks Fund, JHU disposed of the land through donation, not a sale. Hence no proceeds, and no fund.

However, JHU did not tell the donors about its transactions with Montgomery County. As a result, the donors had no significant objections to the subsequent commercial development of the eastern part of the property, believing that JHU planned to use the money from the development to pay for building of the campus on the western part. The eastern part was developed into 390,000 square feet of R&D buildings, with associated parking lots. A strip of forest now divides it from the western part.

Elizabeth Banks died in 2005. That same year, according to the Planning Board website, “JHU [began] to rethink their original plans for Belward”. Because the 1997 preliminary plan had already proposed the development of the property to the maximum allowed by the R&D zoning of the time, JHU’s “rethinking” also required a second round of rezoning.

In 2007, the Planning Department started work on the new area master plan, then known as Gaithersburg West. The final master plan, renamed the Great Seneca Science Corridor, recommended re-rezoning the property from lower-density R&D to higher-density LSC, with a maximum FAR of 1.0, or approximately 4.7 million square feet of development.

The County Council approved the master plan in May 2010 and the rezoning request in July 2010. And in July 2011, the Planning Board approved JHU’s request to amend its 1997 preliminary plan.

Due to staging requirements in the master plan, JHU has immediate approval only to build the 1.4 million square feet of development left over from the 1997 plan.

Once the staging requirements are met, however, JHU’s concept plans for the “Belward Research Campus” include:

  • 4.6 million square feet of development,
  • 23 buildings up to 150 feet tall,
  • parking structures for 12,000 cars,
  • 10 acres for the original Belward Farm house and outbuildings,
  • 50% and 40% of floor area, respectively, for R&D/office and life sciences use,
  • a road with a 150’ foot right-of-way, including room for the CCT,
  • no sign or mention of a wooded and fenced buffer between the commercial land use and the academic land use (if there is any).

JHU has said that its plans are consistent with the deed, because development will be limited to “agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes”.

And surely JHU does plan to limit development to this wide range of possible uses. But equally surely, JHU’s current plans are not at all what Elizabeth Banks and her relatives intended when they signed the sales contract that donated Belward Farm to JHU.

Other universities have also been sued for not using a gift as the donors had intended. In another recent case, Robertson v. Princeton University, the donors eventually settled with Princeton about the university’s use of a $900 million endowment to educate students for careers in government. But Tulane University was allowed to merge Newcomb College into the university’s arts and sciences college, despite Josephine Newcomb’s wish to establish a women’s college in honor of her late daughter.

In the meantime, Montgomery County continues with its plans for the creation of a transit-oriented, urban development that will actually be car-dependent sprawl. Sadly, JHU’s planned development of Belward Farm into a “research campus” the size of a Tysons Corner Silver Line redevelopment project fits right in to this absurdity.

(Disclosures: I testified against the Science City master plan on behalf of the Action Committee for Transit. Also, I have a graduate degree from JHU.)