We’d Be Glad to Have Your Farm!

In the negotiations between donors and universities about their gifts, wise donors try to attach firm strings to their gifts that can be pulled if a university violates a donor’s intent. As I showed in my Pope Center paper Games Universities Play, universities can and will violate agreements in order to get freedom to do what they want with donors’ gifts.

The latest debate over donor intent concerns the Belward Farm, in Darnestown, Maryland, about 25 miles northwest of Washington. Elizabeth Banks and her relatives sold the Belward property in 1989 to Johns Hopkins University for $5 million, a price considerably below the market value of the property. The university, while based in Baltimore, has long had a satellite campus in Montgomery County, which it seeks to expand on the Belward Farm site. Now, it is joining with Montgomery County businesses to create a $10 billion biotech “Science City” around the site.

Several conditions were attached to the 1989 sale. Johns Hopkins agreed to maintain the farm as long as Banks lived. Banks allowed the university to develop about 30 acres of her property, on condition that a row of stately old trees stood between the development and the remainder of the farm. The remaining 108 acres, according to the deed, were limited in use to “agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of medical care and services, or related purposes only, which uses may specifically include but not be limited to the development of a research campus in affiliation with one or more of the divisions [of land] of the Grantee.”  Furthermore, the university was prohibited from selling the Belward property until either 2039 or 21 years after the death of the last grandchild of her relatives, whatever year comes first.

The problem is that while the deed says that Hopkins has to maintain the 108 acres “in a well-kept and attractive fashion,” it offers no guidance on how the property should be developed. Hopkins’s position is that it may do what it chooses with the property, as long as it builds a campus devoted to science and medicine. Its opponents, led by Banks’s nephew Timothy Newell, argue that Elizabeth Banks’s wishes were that the property be less developed. They support plans created by Johns Hopkins and Montgomery County in 1997, which would make Belward more like a college campus than the dense, inner-city development that is currently proposed.

Banks was interviewed at least twice about why she decided to sell her farm to Johns Hopkins.  In a 1989 interview with the Montgomery County Journal, she said, “I never wanted a developer to put a foot on this property. They destroy all the trees, the birds, everything. This whole community around here has been destroyed by the developers.  Sometimes when I’m out shopping, total strangers ask me if I’m the one with the beautiful farm, and I tell them, ‘I’m trying to keep it that way.’”

She added in the interview that she decided to sell her property to Johns Hopkins because she had long had a favorable impression of the school and appreciated the high quality of the treatment Johns Hopkins’s hospital gave her mother after she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1962. “I’ve had a big spot in my heart for Johns Hopkins for many years,” Banks said. “They’re a great institution and Montgomery County should be proud.”

In a 2001 interview with the Washington Post, Banks, who never married, added that she had fond memories of Hopkins from the 1930s when she dated Hopkins students by going to lacrosse games on campus.  “When you say Johns Hopkins, people know who you’re talking about,” Banks said.  “I didn’t just want to give it (the property) away to a school anywhere.”

But that same article also showed that the university was eager to ignore Banks’s intentions even in her lifetime. Banks had allowed a 30-acre portion of the farm to be sold to biomedical research companies, as long as a buffer of century-old trees protected the farm and the remaining 100 acres. One day, the trees were destroyed by bulldozers, even though this action was prohibited by the deed.

Banks sued Hopkins over that violation and won. Hopkins claimed the deed did not specifically say which trees were to be preserved, but apologized. Banks remained angry even though the university had some saplings planted. “They came, they lied to me,” Banks said.  “It hurt me so.  I had all the faith in the world. They turned on me.  They stabbed me in the back. The new regime came in. They don’t care about the woods.”

John Dearden, who brokered the 1989 deal for Hopkins, told the Washington Post, “Elizabeth could have insisted the entire tract be held under the deed of gift and not developed until she was gone. But it was her generosity that allowed them to start building there. They did it in a fashion that tore right at the intent. It was terrible. It was bad judgment and inappropriate.”

In 2005, Elizabeth Beall Banks died at age 94, and the terms of the Belward Farm property deal came into force. Hopkins officials soon revealed their plans for developing Belward Farm, telling Washington Post reporter Dana Hedgpeth, “the buildings are likely to be three- or four-stories high and look like a campus.”

Between 2005 and 2008, however, Hopkins’s vision of the Belward property changed to the denser “Science City.”  In a December 2008 workshop, Hopkins official David McDonough said that the university “is competing globally for the best and the brightest researchers and that the older-styled (suburban) dispersed and low density development, as characterized by the Research Triangle in North Carolina (or some older corporate campuses in Montgomery County), has not been shown to be the latest state of the art and most attractive to these scientists, especially the next generation of younger scientists.  Instead, a mixed use, pedestrian friendly, higher density, more civic form of development has been shown to be strongly favored for this type of world class research campus.”

Documents posted on the website created by allies of Banks’s descendants show that complaints about the Science City proposal were sent to Hopkins officials beginning in 2009.  Both Johns Hopkins and Montgomery County planners ignored those complaints, leading Banks’s descendants to file suit. The issue currently being contested in a Rockville, Maryland, court is whether, given the conditions of the sale, Johns Hopkins should be limited in how much it can build on the Belward property.  Can it build a dense “Science City” that would be as closely packed as an inner-city campus?

Johns Hopkins’s lawyers make two general arguments that the case should be dismissed. One is that the Science City plans are proposals and can’t be contested until they’re implemented. But Hopkins has stood behind these proposals since at least 2008 and there’s no evidence that Hopkins is about to change them. Readers should be reminded that this school did not think that Banks could challenge the portion of the deed stating that the school “shall preserve…a wooden buffer” until the “wooden buffer” had been bulldozed out of existence. 

Hopkins’s second point is that nothing in the deed specifically prohibits it from implementing the Science City proposal. The plaintiffs, however, have a statement from John Dearden, the former Hopkins development officer who negotiated the 1989 deal, that not only he, but also the president of Hopkins at the time, understood that Banks’s intention was to create “a version of [Hopkins’s] Homewood campus” at Belward. If Banks had known that Hopkins intended to build a city rather than a campus at Belward, “she would not have endorsed that, she would not have made the gift if she had known they would not respect her intent.”

Thus, the university had every reason to think that Banks would never have sold the property if she had known it would be turned into “Science City.”

At the time of this writing, the judge has yet to rule on the university’s motion to dismiss the complaint.  

A Hopkins victory would be a blow against the protection of donor intent. “If the university wins,” notes Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, “it would be because it hoodwinked a woman in her late 70s who was trying to do the school a favor.  In that case, if I were Johns Hopkins, I’d watch out for the ghost of Liz Banks thirsting for revenge.”