Friday, February 24, 2017

MoCo Planning Board backs developer over community on cemetery, and it's not a good look

Westbard Sketch Plan Hearing Part I: "Enough is Enough"

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?


Anonymous said...

How many of the relatives of those buried in that cemetery live in "the community"?

Robert Dyer said...

8:03: "The community" refers to the church, and the residents and community organizations supporting them in the cemetery fight.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget Dyer's testimony yesterday, scolding the Planning Board for desecrating a black cemetery during Black History Month. #fortherecord #notfakenews

Anonymous said...

So Mr Cunningham testified that there was indeed a cemetery there, and he remembers it from when he was younger. I believe him.

The Westbard planning started in 2013, and there were numerous hearings since then. Where was Mr Cunningham all this time? Did he suddenly remember the cemetery only now in 2017?

Also, people seem to be claiming Equity One "stole" "their" land. Is there any basis for this? I'm assuming Equity One purchased is legitimately, the people complaining have a valid claim against the title insurer if they think otherwise. Have they filed such a claim?

Anonymous said...

On another note, looks like the other website reported 2 stories today that Dyer reported earlier this week, without accreditation. The Sweetgreen cashless story and the one about Mission BBQ opening date.

Do they just phone it in over at the other site?

Robert Dyer said...

8:44: Can you hear the microwave over there heating up my old stories? Beep. Beep. Beep. Even better days later than fresh!

Anonymous said...

Had the Planning Department included the matter of the cemetery during their public presentations on the history of Westbard, this issue would have been commented on during the sector plan hearing process. The Planning Department did not include the cemetery in its public. presentations about the history of the site. The Planning Board lied by omission.

Anonymous said...

Dyer @ 8:11 - "the church" has a legitimate concern. "The community" ignored the cemetery for a half-century, until they suddenly found it as a pretext for blockin new development - it is their amphipod, their snail-darter.

Anonymous said...

What about answers to 8:42's questions?

Better to comment on an atta boy from whoever is your angel yes-man than add to the discussion?

Anonymous said...

As Robert reports, Equity One 's was the only testimony in favor of approving the Westbard sketch plan yesterday (I attended the hearing.) The testimony about the cemetery site was particularly moving. Others testified on the need to prevent construction in the Willett Branch stream buffer, the lack of green space, and excessive height and density.

An unbiased Planning Board would have paid attention to this in rendering its decision on the Westbard sketch plan. This Planning Board-- with the exception of the Church site carve out-- did not. Especially insulting was the failure to include a representative of the Church alongside the developer in the final discussion about the presumed cemetery site. Also egregious was the failure to let Marsha Coleman-Adebayo present her concerns about the Planning Department's presentation about the cemetery contracting process.

Montgomery County's land use approval process is broken. To understand why, watch this hearing. The video is available online.

Robert Dyer said...

9:01: You're comparing a developer desecrating a cemetery and trying to cover it up in the late 1960s to a bug? It sounds like you're one of the racists who feels liberated to act out by our racially-insensitive Planning Board.


Anonymous said...

The Planning Board carved out the area in question and postponed approval. What more does Dyer want? For about the thousandth time, it appears Robert is just whining for whining's sake.

Anonymous said...

@8:41, 9:01, 9:02:

1. Equity One did not steal any land, but the cemetery appears to have been bulldozed under when the land was first developed in the 1960s. In purchasing the site, Equity One is obliged to comply with current law. State law requires that any graves be reburied.

2. The County made public presentations in 2015 on the history of the Westbard site. While these presentations mentioned the African-American community that lived along River Road and the need for commemorative signage, the cemetery was never mentioned. If it had been, community organizations and others would have asked for archaeological investigations at that time. The County states that it knew about the cemetery in 2015. Good planning practice requires that the presence of cemeteries be investigated as soon as possible in the planning process. Why didn't the County require developer Equity One to complete archaeological studies *before* completion of the Westbard sketch plan?
3. Why do members of the community care about the cemetery? In my case, it is an ethical issue. A great wrong was committed when the cemetery was disturbed in the 1960s. It is a matter of decency to respect those buried there. Treating the cemetery properly transcends the question of whether you approve or disapprove of the Westbard development: it is a moral issue.

Anonymous said...

@9.32, I agree that the Church won a victory with the Planning Board approval of a carve-out. Equity One is also prohibited from proceeding to the next phase of planning approval until the sketch plan for the presumed cemetery site is completed.

BUT: the victory was partial because the Planning Board approved the sketch plans for the rest of the site. The Church wants a museum built on the Equity One land to honor the cemetery and the black community. The carve-out site may not accommodate a museum, and the ability to include a museum might be precluded because the rest of the sketch plan was approved.

How could the Planning Department have done more?
1. By including the cemetery in public discussions of the site history in 2015 onward.
2. By requiring Equity One to complete an archaeological investigation of the site *before* approving the sector plan or (less desirably) before developing its sketch plan.
3. By releasing the results of an archaeological investigation publicly *before* approving the sector plan or (alternatively) permitting sketch plan submission.

Anonymous said...

9:01 AM Are you really comparing the bodies of freed slaves to amphipods (basically crustaceans/shrimp)?

The Church is involved because of the sacred land. I doubt they'd insert themselves into the redevelopment battle otherwise. A new shopping center on Westbard isn't their concern, it's the sacred land.

Anonymous said...

If the church wants a museum, why can't they build it on their own property?

Anonymous said...

Good, common sense prevails. Great news. Thanks for the report !!

Anonymous said...

@12:06: the Church's property is very small. There is no room for a museum.

Anonymous said...

There is a good response from 8:54 to 8:42's questions. If the Planning Department found out about the cemetery in 2015, why didn't it inform the public then? I ask this question because I want to a meeting at which the Planning Department discussed the results of its historic investigation. Nothing was said about the cemetery. Why not? It certainly seems relevant to the Westbard planning process.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of a museum. It could really add something to Equity One's development. What a great gift to current and future residents to be able to learn the history of the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Then donate to the church if you want a museum to happen. It has nothing to do with Equity One or any other private entity for that matter.

Anonymous said...

I understand the need to research the graveyard, and if bodies can be found, properly reinserting them. No inexpensive undertaking. What I don't get is why, on top of that, Equity One should be expected to build a museum. That is unfair overreach.

Anonymous said...

I am curious as to who sold the cemetery for development in the 1960s. Additionally, I am curious as to who sold the Cunningham's farm for development. Was it in fact sold or was it "stolen" from them. Mr. Cunningham can get emotional over his mother's tulips, but missing is the explanation on how the farm came to be a shopping center.

The narrative of "they took it from us" and greedy white developers is often repeated, but I think it is very likely that someone in that family sold their land. While racism is absolutely with us in 2017 and was doubtless rampant in 1960s, surely developers were not stealing or forcibly taking property from deeded land owners.

Cav_Grad said...

7:01 AM I don't know what happened in the 60s, but I tend to believe the folks who lived through it more than idle speculation.

However, I'm more focused on today and how we can make it right. The museum could be the key cultural pillar to the otherwise soulless Equity One development. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Cav_Grad agreed. But the folks who lived through it aren't really saying what happened, certainly not in detail.

Anonymous said...

7:01 - But that doesn't fit Dyer's "Crime Against Humanity" narrative.

Anonymous said...

If true, this would be The Original Sin of Westbard- swindling land from descendants of freed slaves decades ago.

This could all be covered in the museum.

Anonymous said...

"the otherwise soulless Equity One development"

Oh, please. Are you suggesting that there is any "soul" to be found in Westbard as it exists now?