Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Neighbors question plan for housing, retail at Belward

Issue hinges on restrictions outlined in 1989 deed

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Some neighbors of a key piece of land where Johns Hopkins University plans to build a biotech and research campus say the proposal does not hold true to the wishes of the woman who sold the university the parcel.

At issue is Hopkins’ desire to build housing and retail on the 108-acre Belward farm in Gaithersburg, and how to interpret the provisions that Elizabeth Banks laid out in the deed transferring her family farm to Hopkins.

Banks sold Hopkins the land in 1989 for $5 million dollars, a small fraction of its value, after rebuffing repeated offers from residential and commercial developers. She continued to live there until her death in 2005.

The deed, dated Jan. 9, 1989, calls for ‘‘agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and medical care services, or related purposes only, which uses may specifically include but not be limited to the development of a research campus...”

Hopkins believes the ‘‘related purposes” clause allows for a small amount of housing and retail development to support the researchers. They point to rival campuses under construction around the world, which mix research, retail and housing.

But some longtime neighbors counter that the proposal goes against Banks’ ideas for her family farm.

Concerns surfaced immediately after Hopkins unveiled its plans — dubbed Vision2030 — earlier this year, and came to a head during a brief but tense discussion of the deed at Hopkins’ most recent public forum in February.

For Diane Aronson, those concerns have not dissipated. A 29-year resident of the neighboring Westleigh community, she said she feels a ‘‘moral obligation” to voice what she believes were Banks’ intentions.

‘‘I personally was told by Mrs. Banks that she did not want housing on that property. She had a long history of disgust for commercial and housing development... I think she’d be horrified by the thought of any kind of commercial endeavors,” she said. ‘‘They’re betraying her wishes... It’s disconcerting to me that a well-respected educational institution can do something like this.”

It wasn’t until Banks’ death that Hopkins began piecing together its vision for the property. As they looked around the world, it became evident that the suburban research park model was outdated, said Elaine Amir, executive director of Hopkins’ Montgomery County campus.

‘‘She could not possibly have imagined. I could not have imagined. None of us imagined until we did the research. What’s happening is revolutionary,” Amir said. ‘‘When she talked about anything, she talked about models she didn’t like. She did not like wall-to-wall housing... she mandated that there was going to be research, and we were challenged to create something that’s world class. She believed in what Hopkins did, and Hopkins has not failed her.”

Housing scenarios have not yet been decided, but most of it will be in the adjacent Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, Amir said. Hopkins and county planners are looking at the current site of the Public Safety Training Academy to build some housing, and officials with Shady Grove Adventist Hospital have expressed willingness to build housing on its property.

‘‘The majority of land, by far, on Belward is going to be specifically dedicated to the actual research,” Amir said.

The County Planning Board is in the midst of updating the guiding documents that dictate how the Belward farm and Life Sciences Center can be developed. So far, the board has given the green light to change the zoning to allow Hopkins’ vision to move forward.