Johns Hopkins University tricked a Montgomery County farm owner into helping the university establish an office park on land she donated, violating their agreement, the donor's family told a Maryland Circuit Court judge Wednesday.

But attorneys for the university said Hopkins' plans for the 108-acre former farm comply with the agreement struck when Elizabeth Banks sold the land to the university for $5 million. The university asked the judge to dismiss the case, while Banks' relatives want the issue decided in a civil trial.

Banks was adamant that her land, once a dairy farm known as Belward Haven, remain undeveloped, and she turned down offers from speculators who wanted to build single-family homes, offering more than $50 million. But prompted by deteriorating financial circumstances, Banks sold 138 acres to Johns Hopkins University in 1989, for a reduced price of $5 million. She gave the university a free hand in developing a 30-acre tract, but specified that a 108-acre westernmost portion "be developed and used only for academic purposes," according to the complaint filed by Banks' nephew, Tim Newell, in November.

A few years after Banks' death in 2005, the university announced plans for a "Science City," a biotech research and development corridor estimated to create 60,000 jobs.

The plans include the construction of 23 buildings ranging in height from three to 13 stories and enough parking for 12,320 vehicles, according to Montgomery County Planning Board documents. About half the space will be used as office space, 40 percent will be dedicated to life sciences and 10 percent will be retail.

If Banks saw the new plans, she would consider herself defrauded, Newell said Wednesday.

"This was to be a campus, not a commercial office park," said David Brown, Newell's Rockville-based attorney.

James Hulme, attorney for Johns Hopkins, said the plans do not violate the terms of the agreement.

Examiner Archives
  • Belward farm family says Johns Hopkins violated their trust (12/26/11)
  • Family: Johns Hopkins has broken promises before (12/26/11)
  • Johns Hopkins seeks to dismiss 'Science City' land suit (12/20/11)
  • Hulme quoted language from the contract that he said clearly gave Hopkins the right to proceed with its plans. "There are no restrictions on Johns Hopkins' right to lease its property to others, nor is there any restriction on the height, density or scale of the development," he said.

    Based on the plans alone it is impossible to determine whether the research and development park will violate Banks' contract, said Hulme. "It would really depend on what's going on in the building."

    But Brown insisted that Maryland Circuit Court Judge Katherine Savage should consider the context of Banks' wishes, not just the text of the contract, and said the contract is, to some extent, ambiguous.

    Savage did not rule on Hulme's motion to dismiss the case. She said she'd decide soon whether to allow it to go to trial.