Greater Greater Washington


Land donors sue JHU to block Science City development

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."

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

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.)

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Miriam Schoenbaum lives in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. She serves on the MARC Riders' Advisory Council and is a member of the Boyds Civic Association and the Action Committee for Transit


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"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."

So... they sold it? Isn't this like Papa Johns donating a pizza to me in return for $10?

by Sam on Dec 1, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

Miriam, excellent post. The donors really have a point. It's ironic that such a signature piece of the County Executive's Office could actually be in violation of the terms of the donation of the land.

It still boggles the mind why the Executive's Office would spend money on this poorly sited plan rather than contributing to boulevardizing Rockville Pike in White Flint. One has a Metro station, the other does not. It makes no sense except in an outdated 1960's through 1990's view that says that development that you drive to and park in acres of surface parking is good while development you take transit to and walk around is somehow bad.

I can't wait to see what the fallout from this sensible lawsuit will be.

by Cavan on Dec 1, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

Sam, it's more like Papa John's selling you a pizza for $1 and attaching conditions that you can only eat the pizza by yourself rather than with other people in exchange for the super-low price.

by Cavan on Dec 1, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

So MoCo & it's JHU partner are encouraging job growth instead of remaining stagnant like it has the past 10-15 years and people complain. Why aren't there articles and protests against the Howard Hughes Janelia Farm research campus which is even further out and will create more sprawl inducing then JHU plans which are located in an already developed bioscience complex. Whats the alternative continue to lose the commercial tax base to Northern Virginia where these anti-business headaches rarely happen?

by mike on Dec 1, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

The legal documents I cited in this post are available here.

by Miriam on Dec 1, 2011 3:36 pm • linkreport

I am going to have to agree with Mike here, 60,000 jobs sounds like a big number to me.

by Matt R on Dec 2, 2011 7:16 am • linkreport

Typical Maryland/MoCo buffoonery. We get a chance for a boatload of jobs and someone tries to destroy it. I'll bet a beer that "Science City" ends up in Tysons or Reston or something else in VA.

by Martin on Dec 2, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

I'm personally hoping that the Science City does get developed. Sure, it would have been better if there's a metro station nearby, but that's why most of the development won't happen until the CCT is funded. In addition, that area isn't exactly devoid of anything. There are already a ton of biotech companies in that area and this plan merely fills up the vast office parking lots that separate those buildings. I don't see that as a bad thing. Plus Crown Farm and the Washingtonian Center is walkable from that development. It's not perfect, but I applaud Montgomery County for trying to do something ambitious to attract jobs that they're losing.

by localcall on Dec 2, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

Typical Maryland/MoCo buffoonery. We get a chance for a boatload of jobs and someone tries to destroy it.

The person who owned the land got to make the rules. If JHU wanted to build a profit-making business center for 60,000 jobs, they could have just as easily paid $50 million for the land instead of $5 million.

by JustMe on Dec 2, 2011 12:55 pm • linkreport


If JHU wanted to build a profit-making business center for 60,000 jobs without any headaches or lawsuits they could just choose any jurisdiction in Northern Virginia. Just like all the other major corporations that have relocated to the region in the last 10 years.

by mike on Dec 2, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

The community supports the reasonable expansion of the hospital and the biotechs.
Johns Hopkins was able to buy the historic Belward Farm for the gift price of $5 million instead of $50 million because the former owner, Elizabeth Banks was willing to accept a lower price for the property in return for specific restrictions on the property.
Johns Hopkins agreed to the restrictions and a Preliminary Plan was agreed upon by the family in 1997. Hopkins did not follow through with the plan for 1.8 million sq ft. Instead, they waited for Ms. Banks to die and then they proposed a 4.6 million to 6.5 million sq ft high-rise commercial complex on Belward Farm. The County approved 4.6 million sq ft in the master plan.
Johns Hopkins completely ignored the intentions of the donor, Elizabeth Banks.
Additionally, Belward Farm in surrounded on three sides by established residential neighborhoods and very congested roads. The CCT will not put a dent in the massive amounts of traffic that would result from the development that has been proposed.

by Donna Baron on Dec 2, 2011 6:24 pm • linkreport

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.

Reading the deed online, it also stipulates that the parcel should be maintained in a well-kept and attractive fashion.

Am I missing something? How is Johns Hopkins violating the above restrictions?

From what I can tell, the heirs are upset because they would like to see a bucolic campus, like Hopkins' undergraduate campus. They're afraid it will end up looking like Hopkins' much denser medical school campus. My guess is that it ends up looking something in between. But it seems like there's a lot of flexibility in the deed.

by Confused on Dec 4, 2011 11:59 pm • linkreport

Johns Hopkins is proposing a 4.6 million sq ft commercial complex on Belward Farm for approximately 15,000 people in buildings 12- to 14-stories high. Hopkins has not committed to occupy any of the buildings on Belward Farm. Johns Hopkins is a commercial real estate developer even though Elizabeth Banks was adamently opposed to having commercial or residential development on her land. She wanted a low impact Hopkins-occupied academic or medical campus that would preserve the integrity of the farm and serve as a legacy to her family who had owned the property for over 100 years.
It has been noted in the news that Ms. Banks chased one commercial real estate developer off her land with a shotgun even though there were developers who had offered her up to $54 million for the property. She turned them down. She was committed to preserving the legacy of her beloved farm.
The Hopkins' officials had every opportunity to understand Elizabeth Banks' intentions for her farm. They courted her for years before she agreed to sell the land to them for a gift price because she felt they shared her vision for the farm.
It was not an impersonal transaction. Elaine Amir, the Executive Director of Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus, sat with Ms. Banks during thunderstorms to comfort her. Ms. Banks entrusted the farm to Hopkins' care, but apparently her trust was misguided.
Belward Farm is a very special Civil War-era property. Check out the photos of the farm in the Belward Farm Photo Album on .

by Donna Baron on Dec 5, 2011 7:48 am • linkreport

Donna, I am sympathetic to Elizabeth Banks if what you say is true. But why didn't she put that in the deed? Instead she explicitly stated in the deed that the use was not limited to the development of a research campus affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Could it be that she included such stipulations exactly because she was fond of Hopkins and wanted them to be able to make the best use of the land in a way that advanced research and medicine? Surely she knew how dense the Hopkins Medical campus is.

I understand the folks at have an issue with "Science City", and I can understand why. But given that everything Hopkins proposed is in accordance with Mrs. Banks' deed, I find it hard to be convinced by the "but what she really meant was..." argument.

If Hopkins develops this land in an unattractive way, or if they use it for purposes unrelated to research and medicine, then I can see the point of the suit. But ultimately, it's not up to you to decide how Hopkins develops the land. It was up to Mrs. Banks. And she made her choice decades ago.

by Confused on Dec 5, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

The saddest part of it all is that Ms. Banks trusted Johns Hopkins because she knew that they were well aware of her wishes. She trusted Johns Hopkins. Everyone knew she didn't want a residential or commercial complex on her farm. Her obituary says "Her love of the land led Ms. Banks and her family to sell Belward Farm at a gift price to Johns Hopkins University to ensure its development as a campus instead of a housing or commercial complex."
She and her family agreed to the plans for a 1.7 million sq ft academic or medical campus. That is what she wanted. They worked it out with Hopkins and they all agreed to it.
But Hopkins didn't follow through with those plans. They waited for Ms. Banks to die and then they proposed a 4.6 million to 6.5 million square ft high-rise commercial complex for 15,000 to 20,000 people in buildings 12- to 14-stories high. That was obviously not what she wanted and Hopkins knew it.
I confronted David McDonough from Hopkins at a community meeting and told him that. He said, "Ms. Banks is dead".
So much for her trust in Johns Hopkins. They didn't care.
Maybe she was a fool for not having a 20-page deed that spelled out every detail but she was old-school and trusted people. Very sad.

by Donna Baron on Dec 5, 2011 6:23 pm • linkreport

Wait what??
How is it a pizza-deal ($10) if the land is worth $54 million but Ms. Banks "sold" it to JHU for only $5 million??

You would have to be getting $100 pizza for your $10,for it to be comparable. Everyone knew it was a gift-sale, so that Ms. Banks could be sure the land was safe from hyper-development. Too bad this otherwise admirable institution has a real-estate development arm that skipped its ethics class...

by Diana on Dec 13, 2011 8:11 pm • linkreport

Sam you are wrong with that comment. It equated to a 49 million dollar gift that came with restrictions and very clear donor intent on the use.
To put it simply, the gift was tied to the intented use.

by Tim on Dec 13, 2011 8:21 pm • linkreport

"So MoCo & it's JHU partner are encouraging job growth instead of remaining stagnant like it has the past 10-15 years and people complain."

Mike - I think you're missing a major point in this whole thing and I'm going to guess that you do not live in the immediate area. Over the past 15 years, I have lived in three neighborhoods surrounding Belward Farm: Washingtonian/Rio; Amerfield (Muddy Branch Road) and Washingtonian Woods (Muddy Brand Road directly across from the farm). 10-12 years ago, I used to joke that the Sam Eig/370 exit was 270's best kept secret. Fast Forward to now and it's most likely the worst exit on the whole highway...badly laid out and congested beyond ridiculousness.

The area itself has seen the growth of the Kentlands, Lakelands, Washingtonian Woods, Great Seneca Highway and dozens of new developments stretching from Gaithersburg to Germantown on that road in that same time period (with yet another development going up across from the Washingtonian/Rio complex by the 270 exit as we speak). In short, traffic is worse than ever already. Are you telling me that the county is ready for another 15,000-20,000 additional cars on the existing roads? That the existing roads (2 lanes each way) should be turned into clover leaf exits in the middle of a residential area? That we really accept them to produce mass transit/lite-rail to handle all these people? Keep in mind that currently the farm is surrounded by residential neighborhoods...not other commercial developments or high density infrastructure. I have no trust in Mont. Co. to correctly development the surrounding infrastructure in terms of mass transit or appropriate roads by the time this development would break ground (by the way, to anyone else who drives Great Seneca Highway...what drunk did they hire to paint the lane strips after the repaving earlier this year? Literally looks like a three year old stumbled down the road with a paintbrush).

BUT...sounds like in your opinion, current residents be damned...the county needs corporate business and tax income to compete with Northern Virginia. Well, as an area resident, I don't really give a you-know-what about N.VA. Yeah, that disaster that's called I-495 through Tysons Corner is working out real well for them. I would like to live in a nice, manageable area. If I wanted to drive 2 hours to work (12 miles), sit in traffic all day, and see yet another beautiful local farm turned into more commercial zones, I'd just move into the district.

by Shawn on Dec 13, 2011 9:08 pm • linkreport

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