Belward Farm, Hopkins await judge’s ruling (MD)

The fate of a key hearing between Johns Hopkins University and the heirs of Belward Farm’s former owner may boil down to the judge’s interpretation of 18 words.

According to the Belward Farm deed and contract, any use of the property shall be “for agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services, or related purposes only.”

After more than 90 minutes of deliberation, Montgomery County Circuit Court judge Katherine D. Savage elected Wednesday afternoon to not rule on Hopkins’ motion, instead taking it under advisement and promising to make a decision as soon as possible.

In order to deny the Hopkins motion to dismiss a breach of donor intent lawsuit by the heirs of Elizabeth Banks, Savage expressed an explicit interest in determining the ambiguity of that 18-word statement – the only restrictions written in the deed.

Savage said she was not interested in the circumstances by which the agreement was originally made in 1989, preventing the attorney representing lead plaintiff Tim Newell from explaining Banks’ intent for her farm.

“We were shut down from that,” Newell said after the hearing. “She did not allow us [to explain the context of the agreement] and I’m frustrated. It is part of [the lawsuit], looking at the contract in its entirety, but it’s a donor intent issue.”

But the issue for Hopkins lies solely in those 18 words, the university’s attorney, James Hulme, said, emphasizing the last clause (“or related purposes only”) leaves the door open for JHU to build beyond the listed restrictions.

The university plans to build a 4.6 million-square-foot commercial real estate venture, Newell’s attorney David Brown said. The university originally agreed to build a 1.4 million-square-foot, low-rise academic campus.

If Savage rules in Hopkins’ favor, the university will be free to sell 99-year leases within the proposed real estate property, Brown said. “[Hopkins] would have no obligation to occupy any of the property,” Newell’s attorney added. “They would simply have to act as landlords.”

Over time, the new regime at Hopkins decided that making money was more important than keeping their word to Banks, Newell said.

If the case does eventually land in civil court, former Hopkins officials such as John Dearden – a fundraiser for the university who spearheaded the Belward project – would help make it clear Hopkins’ current plans were not what Banks intended for her farm, Newell said.

Hopkins plans to honor its obligations to the contract and deed negotiated with Banks and expects the judge to rule in its favor, according to JHU spokeswoman Robin Ferrier.

“We believe strongly, however, that the contract and deed do not restrict the height or density of development on the property, and that the university has the right to lease to non-university tenants,” Ferrier told Patch in an email.

If Hopkins is successful in its motion to dismiss, Newell said his group is prepared to appeal the court’s decision.

“I think we have total merits in the case and I know we’re in the right, but that doesn’t mean we win,” Newell said. “We do have an appeal process after that if she does shut us down. I think that would certainly be our next step.”


Belward Farm, Hopkins Await Judge’s Ruling
A Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge did not rule on a key hearing between Johns Hopkins University and the heirs to the former Belward Farm owner Wednesday in Rockville.
Greg Cohen
February 2, 2012