The Montgomery County Planning Department and the Macedonia Baptist Church have apparently reached a deadlock over a highly controversial development plan.
The Westbard area in Bethesda has been selected by Regency Centers for construction of an estimated 1.8 million square feet retail and residential center. What has provoked dissension from the church is the probable existence of a historic African-American cemetery on part of the land targeted for redevelopment.
A congregation of around 70 of the Macedonia Baptist Church have argued repeatedly for anthropological studies to discern the boundaries of the burial ground. Church leaders like Reverend Segun Adebayo are even asking for a museum and memorial for the historical black community which thrived in the area.
Churchgoer Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said to Bethesda Magazine, “For these people to have been treated with so little respect in life and then discarded in death, I think makes us all feel that something terribly wrong has happened.”
Since the cemetery was initially disturbed more than half a century ago for building construction, the exact whereabouts of the graveyard are not clear. Experts have conducted preliminary studies with radars, but the plans submitted by Equity One (which recently merged with Regency Centers) were featured on the Planning Board’s agenda prior to completion of testing.
Speaking for the congregation, Adebayo had written to officials, “As a faith community we embrace the virtue of good neighborliness and peaceable coexistence with our community. However, please be assured that we are forever more determined to fight for the right, honor and dignity of our deceased relatives.”
According to Bethesda Magazine, Gwen Wright, planning director for the department, stated in response to this: “The Montgomery County Planning Department shares community concerns about the possible presence of a historic African-American cemetery in Westbard. We have approached this issue with utmost sensitivity to the possible presence of burial sites and will continue to do so.”
On October 4, a dozen members of the Macedonia Baptist Church picketed a housing commission meeting with cardboard gravestones, interrupting the session to request church access to the grounds for archaeological studies. However, commissioners stated that they were unable to vote to do so as the plan is already facing litigation from another group.
As of now, the area is occupied by Westwood Tower Apartments, an affordable housing community leased by Montgomery County’s housing opportunities commission. Concurrent to the protests, a lawsuit has been filed against the housing commission by current Westwood Tower residents who fear that their housing situation will be hurt by the plan.
The contested question of eminent domain is central to this controversy. Within the United States, the government has authority to take private property for public use as long as there is just compensation. However, as can be seen in this case, the government’s decision is not always readily accepted.
The project’s County Executive Ike Leggett and Council President Roger Berliner have both suggested the necessity of mediation to resolve this conflict of interests. Mediation thus far between the two parties have been unsuccessful. After two sessions, the parties were unable to decide on a date for the third session.
Church members say that the mediators decided to cancel the session despite the willingness of participants to move forward. The commission’s executive director, Stacy Spann, cited concerns with the breach of privacy in the first two sessions as the reason behind her refusing to attend a third; church members are asking for Spann’s attendance if a third session is scheduled.
With both parties refusing to budge, the fate of the historic black cemetery is yet to be determined. For now, the development plan remains highly contentious and strikes a chord with many members of the local black community.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Emily Tian of Richard Montgomery High School