Local lore has it that Elizabeth Beall Banks once chased developers off her Gaithersburg-area farm with a shotgun when they came around asking questions.
But even then, the sprawl opponent knew that the same forces that turned parcels around her into housing tracts, business parks and shopping centers would eventually threaten the 138-acre Belward Farm.
Rather than sell it to the highest bidder, her heirs said, she sold it to the Johns Hopkins University — a suitor she believed would protect the farm from the development she detested.
Now, nearly seven years after her death, her family and the university are at odds over what is to be built on the remaining 108-acre parcel, nestled in Montgomery County's booming research corridor along Interstate 270.
Banks' heirs have sued to block the university's plan to build a 4.7 million-square-foot research and development campus, saying that it violates the terms of the contract signed with their aunt in 1989. Hopkins officials maintain that the plans are in keeping with the agreement. The two sides are scheduled to appear in court Wednesday. Hopkins is asking a judge to either dismiss the suit or grant summary judgment.
"We're very confident our approach is consistent with our obligations, [and] also with [Montgomery County's] strategy for the future," said Hopkins spokeswoman Robin Ferrier.
Hopkins bought the property for $5 million — a fraction of its $54 million market value, the suit says. Banks' family contends that she agreed only because she believed that the university intended to build a satellite campus there.
"It wasn't about the money," said Tim Newell, Banks' nephew, who is the lead plaintiff. "This was about leaving a legacy for the family, protecting the property and doing a good thing for a very good university."
David Brown, the family's attorney, concedes the deed did not specify that a satellite campus be built. It limits the land's use to "... agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care and services or related purposes only."
But he points to the university's subsequent actions — having the property rezoned to clear the way for development, combined with the preliminary plan it submitted to the county that called for 17 two- to four-story buildings.
"There's no way that any such tripling of the density of the property was [contemplated by] the parties," Brown said.
In court papers, university officials maintain that the deed places no limitations on the size of the development.
Newell said the family doesn't want to stand in the way of Hopkins' plan to build but feels obligated to hold the university to the agreement.
"All these times, she succeeded in protecting" the land, Newell said. "Now the people she trusted are doing the very thing she didn't want done to it."