The longstanding dispute over the future development of Belward Farm could come to a close as early as Friday. Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin will preside over the summary judgment hearing in a lawsuit brought by the successors of Belward Farm against Johns Hopkins University.
The family's lawsuit — led by Tim Newell, the nephew of former Belward owner Elizabeth Beall Banks — seeks to prevent the university from building a 4.7 million-square-foot commercial science park on the property. Newell and others contend that when his aunt sold 108-acre Belward Farm to Hopkins in 1989 for $5 million, which was far less than the estimated $50 million market value of the property, the university agreed to build a low-rise, academic campus no bigger than 1.4 million-square-feet on the farm.
The university's plan, which would involve renting space in a complex nearly triple the size of the originally agreed upon academic campus, would change the character of the surronding farm, the plaintiffs have said.
Newell and other family members contend that Hopkins is trying to treat the transfer of property as an arm's length real estate transaction rather than a charitable donation. The university argues that a key phrase in the contract and deed gives it broader latitude in how the property may be used.
According to Newell, Hopkins' argument has taken "extraordinary" new position in treating the transfer as an arm's length transacation rather than a charitable donation.
“Hopkins’ latest position disregards the fact that the property was sold at a fraction of its appraised value and the contract noted that the difference between the value and sale price constituted a charitable donation," Newell said in a statement.
Although Banks sold the property to Hopkins in 1989, she lived there until her death in 2005.
Newell also noted, "In the past, JHU referred to Aunt Liz’s donation as ‘the largest gift to the Campaign for Johns Hopkins.’ And until just recently, they still referred to her gift as one of the largest Hopkins has ever received."
Johns Hopkins University spokesperson Dennis O'Shea said that the university still considers Belward one of its greatest gifts, but that the future of the property comes down to the interpretation of 18 words in the contract and deed.
The university argues the contract is the only fact before the judge that matters, and that a key 18-word phrase — that any development shall be “for agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes only" — does not restrict the density of development, the height of buildings, or the university's right to lease to non-Johns Hopkins tenants.
"Those words represent an unambiguous agreement between the university and the Banks family members," O'Shea said. "They are the result of negotiations in which both parties were represented by lawyers. Both sides agreed in those negotiations to give up some, but not all, of what they originally wanted. But both also got substantial benefits. That is not, as Mr. Newell describes it, a change in position. It’s the simple truth."
After Friday's summary judgment hearing, Judge Rubin could grant summary judgment to either side, which would effectively end the case barring an appeal. If summary judgment is not granted to either party, the trial in the case will begin Nov. 13.