Over the past months we’ve posted several stories about a dispute between heirs of Elizabeth Beall Banks, the former Belward Farm property owner known also for her anti-development activism, and Johns Hopkins University. A condition of the 1989 property sale requires “the property would be used only for academic purposes, research or medical care with no more than 1.4 million square feet developed.“ With university development plans now including a 4.7 million-square-foot campus and science park on the property, heirs are crying foul.
The Washington Post recently reported:
Johns Hopkins filed initial plans with the county this year to build a dense cluster of buildings, some up to 12 stories high, on farmland it bought from Banks in 1989. Many or most of the buildings are expected to be leased by the university to private companies or other parties. The complex would be an anchor of the ambitious “science city” that Montgomery wants to develop as one of its signature economic initiatives.
Though estimated with a value of more than $50 million, Banks reportedly sold the 138-acre farm to Johns Hopkins for $5 million based on a belief that the university would respect her wishes.
Meanwhile, heirs claim current plans violate terms of Banks’ sales contract and that Johns Hopkins is “ignoring Banks’s desire that Johns Hopkins would use the land for a leafy, academic satellite campus, with more space and smaller buildings.”
A hearing is set for Feb. 1 at the Judicial Center in Rockville during which the court will hear arguments on Johns Hopkins University’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Tim Newell, Banks’ nephew and the lead released the following statement:
My family and I are confident that the Judge will reject Johns Hopkins’ motion to dismiss when he hears the merits of our case. The University’s controversial new development plan for Belward Farm clearly violates the use restrictions put in place when my family transferred ownership of the farm to the University. We look forward to the case moving forward toward a successful conclusion.
Once again, this appears a case in which an individual clearly designated the disposition and future use of specific assets via what was believed to be a binding legal document yet those who agreed to said terms now resist honoring that document. This case mirrors Involuntary Redistribution of Assets actions involving estate planning documents (wills, trusts, guardianships, powers of attorey). How? Simply put, today’s legal climate allows documents theoretically designed to protect assets and ensure distribution as per designated instructions to instead be used (or challenged) so as to create a scenario which can disregard a decedent’s final wishes and deny beneficial interests to rightful heirs or other designated beneficiaries.
This case is about the honoring of Elizabeth Beall Banks’ final wishes, but it should serve as a cautionary tale to all Americans who value property rights. We live in a world with a legal system that fosters an “up for grabs” attitude with regard to people’s lifelong accumulation of assets. A disgruntled family member, wannabe heir, unscrupulous attorney – or now, a local university can participate in such actions.
We’ll keep you posted on the outcome of this hearing.