When the late Elizabeth Beall Banks sold her Belward Farm property in Montgomery County to Johns Hopkins University, she wanted the picturesque farm to be preserved. The farm had belonged to her family for more than a century.
So in 1989, Banks attached strings to the sale.
She let the university have the land for a mere $5 million -- well below the estimated market value at that time of $54 million. But there were strings attached. Banks stipulated that she was willing to allow the university to develop 30 acres. The remaining 108 acres were to be used for limited purposes including research and development. Banks wanted a minimally intrusive academic or medical campus constructed on the farm and was willing to accept a lower price in exchange for Johns Hopkins honoring these restrictions.
Specifically, the two-page document governing the arrangement said the land could be used only for "agricultural, academic, research and development, delivery of health and 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 the Grantee."
Banks died in 2005 at age 94. In the time since, clever Johns Hopkins lawyers have interpreted the language broadly, finding ways to drive an 18-wheeler through the various loopholes. The university is now teaming up with Montgomery County businesses to create a massive $10 billion biotech "Science City" around the site. Would Banks approve of the huge project? Based on the terms of her bequest, it is doubtful.
According to her supporters, university officials were acutely aware of her intentions for the property. Officials befriended Banks and worked with her to make sure she was comfortable with the transaction.
In 1997, Johns Hopkins drafted plans for a 1.7 million-square-foot low-rise academic or medical campus that satisfied Banks. The university agreed to the deal but did not proceed with development.
It was only after Banks passed away that the school proposed a 4.6 million-to-6.5 million-square-foot commercial complex for up to 20,000 people in buildings as high as 150 feet, rivaling the Biopolis in Singapore. But her obituary made it clear that Banks had always favored a more modest course of development for the farm: "Her love of the land led Ms. Banks and her family to sell Belward Farm at a gift price to Johns Hopkins University to ensure its development as a campus instead of a housing or commercial complex." And the university agreed to the terms.
The "Science City" project, if it goes ahead, will be built on a Civil War-era farm located five miles from the closest Metrorail station.
Banks' descendants are not happy about the shoddy treatment they have received from Johns Hopkins. On Nov. 10, 2011, Banks' heirs filed a lawsuit against the university in an effort to compel it to honor Banks' donor intent.
The idea that donors should have a say in how their bequests are used is well-established in American law. Governments should not intervene to dishonor donor intent unless a bequest is immoral, unlawful, rendered obsolete, or impossible to attain. And when disputes arise, probate courts should hand down decisions that come as close as possible to honoring donor intent.
If there is any justice in the world, Banks' heirs should score an easy win.
Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center, a Washington think tank.