- - Sunday, November 24, 2013

If he were still alive, the Czech composer Leos Janacek might have been able to squeeze at least an act or two out of a bitter land dispute now roiling Johns Hopkins University. Janacek’s “The Makropulos Affair” is a three-act opera that details an intergenerational probate fight — a bitter dispute over what an ancestor wanted done with his money — that consumes those participating in it.

Johns Hopkins is now involved in a lawsuit that began inching its way through Maryland’s courts in September. The proceedings promise to stretch out quite awhile. A deceased donor’s surviving relatives claim that Johns Hopkins is trying to run roughshod over her express intent when she bequeathed her fortune to the school.

When Elizabeth Beall Banks, now dead, 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, Miss Banks attached strings to the sale. She let the university have the land for a mere $5 million — less than one-tenth of the estimated market value at that time of $54 million. Conditions applied, though. Miss Banks stipulated that she was willing to allow the university to develop 30 acres and the remaining 108 acres were to be used for limited purposes, including research and development.

Miss 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’ promise to honor these restrictions. A development agreement stipulated that 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.”

Miss Banks died in 2005 at age 94. In the time since, clever Johns Hopkins lawyers have interpreted the language broadly, finding ways to drive a truck through whatever loopholes they can concoct. The university is now partnering with Montgomery County businesses to create a massive $10 billion biotech “science city” around the site.

Would Miss Banks approve of the massive project? Based on the terms accompanying her gift, it is doubtful.

According to her supporters, university officials were aware of her intentions for the property. Officials befriended her 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 reportedly satisfied Miss Banks. The university agreed to the deal but held off on development.

It was only after Miss Banks died 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. However, Miss Banks’ obituary made it clear that she 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.” Johns Hopkins agreed to the terms.

If the “science city” project goes ahead, it will be built on a Civil War-era farm located five miles from the closest Metrorail station.

Miss Banks’ descendants are not happy about the shoddy treatment they have received from Johns Hopkins. On Nov. 10, 2011, they filed a lawsuit against the university in an effort to compel it to honor her donor intent.

The idea that donors should have a say in how their bequests are used is well established among our nation’s laws. Governments should not intervene to dishonor donor intent unless a bequest is immoral, unlawful, rendered obsolete or impossible to attain. When disputes arise, probate courts should hand down decisions that come as close as possible to honoring donor intent.

Johns Hopkins has also been in the news because New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave $350 million to the university, his alma mater, in 2013, making it the largest gift to an institution of higher learning to date this year. Including the latest donation, Mr. Bloomberg has given $1 billion to the school during his lifetime. He wants his funds to be used to focus on global health issues and so-called economic sustainability.

While some people, especially conservatives, may not like Mr. Bloomberg’s politics and worldview, they can find some comfort in the fact that his intent as a donor is likely to be respected by Johns Hopkins after he leaves this earth.

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