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Hopkins land worth tens of millions if Science City approved

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Local,News,Business,Maryland,Bill Myers

Johns Hopkins University stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars if Montgomery County's leaders approve a huge biotech complex in Gaithersburg, an analysis shows.

The university is sitting on 107 acres in the Gaithersburg-Rockville-North Potomac area known as Belward Farm. An assessment of the land reviewed by The Examiner found that the fully developed property could be worth up to $340 million if council members OK the Science City proposal.

That's not a bad return, considering that the university bought the land for $5 million in 1989.

Hopkins spokeswoman Robin Ferrier said in an e-mail that the university hasn't looked at the land value "in depth ... as that is not our concern."

"Our focus is on supporting the county as it establishes its vision and plan for the life sciences center, which includes attracting more jobs and creating the most productive working environment for scientists and researchers while maintaining the quality of life and environment," Ferrier said.

Hopkins and other developers are lobbying fiercely for permission to remake the area from suburbia into a steel-and-glass center of scientific research and investment.

County officials approved a lower-level version of the project in the early 1990s. But planning officials recently overhauled those plans, increasing the scale and ambition of the project. Where the old plan allowed for some 38,000 biotech workers, for instance, the new plan would allow for 60,000.

Neighbors, "smart growth" advocates and environmentalists have pushed back, saying that the plan is too much, too soon.

Hopkins bought Belward Farm from retired schoolteacher Liz Banks. Banks moved to the old family farm after she retired but couldn't afford her property tax bills as the area was transformed from farmland into suburbia. Her family says she refused tens of millions of dollars in offer from developers and sold it cheap to Hopkins on the condition that they confine building to small, "Jeffersonian-style" college buildings.

There are billions of dollars at stake.

In 2009, Maryland tax officials valued the Belward Farm land itself at about $7,300 per acre. But that was mostly because state officials consider the land "agricultural," which lowers the property's value. Plots next to Belward Farm, considered "commercial" by state tax officials, were valued at least $420,000 per acre in 2009, records show.

The council's economic development committee is considering the project. A final vote is expected in the late spring or early summer.

bmyers@washingtonexaminer.com

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