Friday, February 24, 2017
MoCo Planning Board backs developer over community on cemetery, and it's not a good look
The Montgomery County Planning Board voted unanimously to approve Equity One's sketch plan yesterday, after a marathon session and emotional testimony that fell on seemingly deaf (and politically tone-deaf) ears. While the section of Equity One's property containing an African-American cemetery was hatched out of the sketch plan, and will have to be approved separately after a cemetery study is completed, the action disregarded concerns of the Macedonia Baptist Church and community. Planning Department claims of concern for the cemetery were undermined severely by the department's failure to execute anything in writing, to ensure a fully-transparent and respectful survey of the cemetery site takes place.
In a last-minute and jumbled modification of the sketch plan conditions, the Board added a two-month deadline that seems to either laughably endorse the idea that this complex and massive cemetery study can be completed in eight weeks, merely demand a contract and scope of work report, or serve as a loophole for Equity One to gain more immediate development rights on at least some parts of the Westwood Tower site via a condition modification, rather than having to go through a sketch plan amendment process.
Even if you assume, for the sake of argument, that the plan approval will protect the cemetery throughout this development process, the optics and subtext of the decision was another public relations disaster for 8787 Georgia Avenue.
The most moving testimony of the marathon 5-hour session, came from the final speaker, Ronald Cunningham. His family was among those who lived in the historic black community in the Westbard area of River Road that lasted for a century after Maryland Emancipation in the 1860s. "This is very emotional for me," Cunningham told the board, his voice cracking several times during his remarks.
"My family was born on River Road," Cunningham said. "That graveyard is there. It's not a spot you can say it's in limbo. It's not in limbo. It's a spot right here on Earth that we walk on. The spirit of my ancestors that were there before me. Equity One should give us that piece of land. They took that from me a long time ago. I want it back. We want it back. Equity One, I got to say to you all, don't do that. We are not animals. Give us that land, so my spirit, the holy spirit of my family, can live in peace."
The fact that this sacred ground is all that is left of the black community, besides the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road - and the subtext of wealthy whites gaining control of the fate of African-Americans in death, and their sacred land where they rest - seemed to escape the board, but not those testifying.
"This land belongs to other people by a higher law," said a representative of the Washington Peace Center, an anti-racism grassroots organization in the District. She asked the board to consider "what is being stolen from black people to benefit white people in this room today."
The Rev. Charlie Davis of the Macedonia Baptist Church decried the "stalling tactics" that have caused the cemetery investigation to fall many months behind schedule, conveniently allowing the development approval process to speed past it on the calendar. "Justice delayed is justice denied," Davis said. "This hearing has a cloud of contempt, and not of good faith." A veteran of the Vietnam era, Davis noted that even today, newly-discovered remains of American soldiers in faraway lands are airlifted home, and given respectful ceremonial burials. "If they go to that length," Davis said, "that suggests there is something sacred about the remains of the dead."
Harvey Matthews, another former resident of River Road whose family home was located where Whole Foods is now, said, "I sit here with a heavy heart this afternoon." He noted that "the tulips that come up every spring [at the Whole Foods property] were planted by my mother." An attendee of the River Road Colored School, Somerset Elementary, Western Jr. High and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Matthews wishes there was a physical place that his descendants could learn about their heritage and history in the River Road community.
Matthews and several others from the Macedonia Baptist Church community advocated for the creation of a museum on land or in space donated by Equity One to the county. "Create a space that honors our ancestors," Matthews suggested.
While the Planning Department has issued press release after press release touting its cooperation with all stakeholders in the cemetery controversy, church leaders tell a different story. "We have not met them even once," MBC interim pastor Rev. Segun Adebayo said of the Planning Department and Equity One. "There has been no meaningful progress, contrary to what has been propagated in the media. We have no confidence in Equity One."
In fact, the Planning Department still has no contract with the independent anthropologist and archaeologist who are supposed to oversee Equity One's cemetery search contractor, to ensure a transparent process. Adebayo said the church would be more comfortable if the county were hiring the search firm, instead of the developer. "He who pays the piper, calls the tune," he said.
Church officials and descendants of the black community and of those buried in the cemetery see history repeating itself in 2017. Despite the entrepreneurial initiative and hard work that created a thriving black community, "they could not fight off greedy developers." Now it's happening again. "Where is our humanity," Adebayo asked. "Enough is enough! Let our dead rest in peace." He said the church will do everything in its power to "extract the honor and dignity of our dead. The remains of our ancestors do not belong to anyone. They are not subject to negotiations."
Dealing with the Planning Department on the cemetery issue "has left me wondering if I live in Montgomery County, or Montgomery, Alabama," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, head of the church's social justice ministry.
For their part, the Planning Board didn't seem concerned about the comparison. "I think what staff did here is reasonable," Chair Casey Anderson declared during board discussion after the public hearing. "I'm OK with what staff did," in allowing Equity One to get sketch plan approval before the cemetery survey is completed. As four white representatives of Equity One were repeatedly given the floor by Anderson during the discussion, he shushed church officials who should legally have had a seat at the table, as the highest priority stakeholders in the matter at hand.
As Planning Director Gwen Wright characterized the ongoing efforts to secure a contract to begin the cemetery study optimistically, Coleman-Adebayo interjected, "But she's saying things that aren't true." "I can't hear from you now," Anderson scolded. "Maybe later." But by the end of the hearing and vote, no church representative had been called on by the chair.
Meanwhile, the board and department's racially-insensitive handling of the cemetery issue and protests surrounding it appear to have emboldened racist attitudes that were latent in Montgomery County, showing the danger of the media normalizing this "we don't have time to be politically correct anymore" style of planning. Racist comments about the cemetery and church community have been popping up in comment sections on the Washington Post and elsewhere. So far, no one on the Montgomery County Council has condemned the Planning Department and Planning Board's approach to this incredibly sensitive issue, and no councilmember has marched with the community in the cemetery fight. Planning Board commissioners are hand-picked by the County Council.
Most telling about Montgomery County's out-of-control planning process? The only testimony in favor of sketch plan at yesterday's hearing was from...Equity One. Yet, the sketch plan passed despite universal public testimony calling for a delay. In a representative democracy, how does that happen?