Macedonia Baptist Church and their supporters are not accepting the latest proposal from the Montgomery County Planning Department in a dispute over a desecrated African-American cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda. On Tuesday, the department said it would temporarily remove the Housing Opportunities Commission/Westwood Tower site - where the cemetery is located, according to land records and eyewitness accounts - from developer Equity One's sketch plan. The Planning Board would then review and vote on the plan, and the excluded site would be reviewed as a later amendment, after the cemetery investigation is complete.
That proposal is "insufficient," church representative Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said in an interview this afternoon. The church still wants the Equity One sketch plan removed from the Board's February 23 agenda, and postponed until the cemetery review is complete.
Equity One is "driving the process," Coleman-Adebayo said. Church leaders and members, whose ancestors are among those buried in the cemetery, are concerned about the Board's "rush to judgement," she said. She added that it would be inappropriate to give the developer approval to put up buildings all around the borders of the cemetery, should the land around it move through the sketch and site plan process before the HOC/Westwood Tower site is investigated.
"We would like to see a museum there," Coleman-Adebayo said of the cemetery site, currently hidden under a parking lot and the Westwood Tower high-rise.
Coleman-Adebayo also accused the Planning Department of attempting to place a "gag order" on the independent anthropologist and archaeologist the church wants to monitor the cemetery investigation. She said they would be unable to report anything they saw or learned to the church or the community. Speakers at last Sunday's protest explicitly said they wanted a process in which the church and other community stakeholders would have equal and immediate access to all of the findings by the developer and its cemetery investigation contractor.
The church has repeatedly tried to schedule a meeting with Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, Coleman-Adebayo said, but "he has refused to meet with us." She said they believe he has met privately with Equity One. "He's made a distinction between" the church and Equity One, she added, noting that the latter is a multi-billion dollar corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.
Protesters from the church, and their supporters in the community, gathered on Georgia Avenue outside the Planning Department headquarters in Silver Spring at 2:00 PM today. After displaying signs and chanting for a few minutes, they were approached by a police officer who told them they needed to move to the courtyard at the back of the building. Coleman-Adebayo responded that the protesters were allowed to be on the public sidewalk, and declined to move. After further polite discussion, the officer left.
A short time later, protesters walked around the building to enter the rear door. They were seeking to deliver a petition, signed by hundreds asking the Board to postpone their February 23 vote on the sketch plan, to Board Chair Casey Anderson.
Three Park Police vehicles were parked near the building, and the group was approached by three Park Police officers. In all, the Planning Department called in six Park Police cruisers and one Montgomery County police officer against the protesters, the largest deployment I've seen against residents at the Planning headquarters. Usually there is one police officer present, and only when a public hearing is expected to be contentious.
Protesters continued into the building, with the officers following. At some point, church leaders were told they could not bring their banner into the Planning Board meeting room. Protesters lined up at the back of the room quietly. One carrying a small sign was approached by a Park Police officer. "That sign doesn't meet the requirements," he told her. "You'll have to go outside." The Planning Department headquarters is a public building, and its meetings are public. Protesters were silent indoors, and did not disrupt the business of the board at any time during today's protest.
|Planning Board Chair|
Casey Anderson refuses
to accept petition from
Macedonia Baptist Church
Technically, Anderson is correct. In practice, however, he has been selective in avoiding ex parte communication since he was named chair of the board. According to an internal Planning Department email, Anderson scheduled a private meeting with Equity One on September 11, 2015. He did not report this ex parte communication at the start of the next Planning Board meeting as required by law. No action was taken against him by any oversight body.
Anderson also spoke privately with Equity One partners minutes after the Westbard sector plan was passed by the County Council on May 3, 2016. He has also, inappropriately, attended charrettes on the Westbard and Rock Spring sector plans. Anderson himself stated he had spoken to attendees at the Westbard charrette, again in violation of ex parte rules, claiming later they told him they were too scared to speak in favor of a draft plan widely opposed by the community. At the Rock Spring meeting, he not only spoke with individuals, but at one point seized control of the meeting to deliver a verbal beatdown to residents who dared to criticize the early framework of the plan.
Anderson's annual taxpayer-funded salary is $200,000. The church's petition was eventually accepted today by Planning Department Deputy Director Rose Krasnow.
Protesters plan to gather at Macedonia Baptist Church again this Sunday, February 19, at 1:30 PM.