Two messy land battles continue to embroil Montgomery County residents, officials and institutions in a series of nasty legal conflicts.
In Potomac, neighborhood residents continue to joust with the Montgomery County Board of Education over the proposed use of a piece of land that has been the site of an organic farm for the past three decades. And in Gaithersburg, Johns Hopkins University and the descendants of Elizabeth Banks remain at odds over the use of her former farm, which the university hopes to turn into a “science city.”
After filing a Maryland Public Information Act request with the Montgomery County Board of Education, the Brickyard Coalition learned the Montgomery County Board of Education has spent more than $200,000 fighting legal battles in its effort to lease a 20-acre parcel of land to Montgomery Soccer Inc. MSI plans to construct a series of soccer fields on the land that has housed Nick’s Organic Farm for the last 30 years.
School system spokesman Dana Tofig confirmed the amount.
Most of the money comes from the department’s budget for contractual services, Tofig said.
In 2012, the Board of Education spent $947,791 on legal services, little of which was spent in the Brickyard controversy. Most of the $200,000 spent by the board on the Brickyard controversy was spent in 2011.
Coalition members, already outraged at what they view as a lack of transparency on the part of the county government, argued that the expenditures were an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars.
“It’s a lot of taxpayer money,” said Ginny Barnes, a member of the Brickyard Coalition, a group of civic associations, neighborhood groups, and individuals opposed to the action. “They’re getting money from the county and the state, and they’re spending it on this?”
“The board is spending [this money] to defend its right to determine the use of public land it owns,” Tofig said.
Barnes, president-elect of the West Montgomery County Citizen’s Association, and the rest of the Coalition are fighting to stop the development of several soccer fields they call a “commercial soccerplex,” which they argue was conceived behind closed doors and without community input.
Lacefield countered that the county held public meetings and had adhered to “standard operating procedure.”
The coalition was unwilling to disclose how much it had spent on its side of the lawsuit.
“That’s not what this is all about,” Barnes said, arguing that the resources marshalled by the Brickyard Coalition comes from “private funds raised by private individuals.”
The office of the county executive’s budget has not been as affected by the lawsuit, Lacefield said, since it had used in-house counsel from the county attorney’s office.
The county hasn’t spent anything on the case thus far, he said, besides a small filing fee appeal to a recent ruling that put a stay on the board’s lease to the Montgomery County government, and funds used to defend itself against a separate lawsuit filed by the coalition over its failure to comply with public information requests.
Lacefield said he wasn’t sure how many hours of its in-house counsel the executive office’s had used, because its lawyers did not bill for services like lawyers in private practice.
“Except in extremely rare cases, they [the county’s attorneys] aren’t billing anybody,” he said.
“Whatever county time was used on this was in pursuance of county policy.”
Nevertheless, Keith Williams, president of the Civic Association of River Falls, a neighborhood off of Brickyard road, said given the number of documents and emails generated, it appeared that the county had “spent an incredible amount of internal time prepping for three court dates [with us].”
A judge recently ordered the coalition to reimburse the county more than $11,000 spent retrieving the records given to the Brickyard Coalition.
Williams said that the Brickyard Coalition had offered to drop its lawsuit against the school board if it would restart the process of what to do with the 20-acre property, with more community input and transparency, which the Board of Education has rejected.
Meanwhile in Gaithersburg, another land battle continues to play out. Twenty years after Elizabeth Banks sold the Belward Farm to Johns Hopkins University for $5 million, a fraction of its market value of $50 million, her descendents and the university are also tangled in a legal brawl. Her descendants and their supporters claim Banks wanted a satellite campus of about 1.5 million square feet built on the land, rather than the 4.7-million-square-foot biotech “science city” that Johns Hopkins now proposes building on the site.
Johns Hopkins University would not divulge how much it had spent on the lawsuit so far.
Tim Newell, the nephew of donor Elizabeth Banks, told The Gazette the fight against Johns Hopkins he and his family are waging “is costing us a fortune we don’t have.”
He would not provide an exact amount, but said he and his family were spending “a small fortune,” to try to thwart JHU’s plan to build a “science city” on the 140 acres that comprised Elizabeth Banks’s farm.
“We’ve made sacrifices,” he told The Gazette, adding, “I know I’m taxing my kid’s college funds.”
Newell said the suit against Johns Hopkins would be impossible if just one of the six plaintiffs — his sisters and cousin — had to pursue the case on their own.
“We spread this out equally, so it’s been a unified fight,” he said.