Sunday, March 19, 2017

Leggett asks for mediator to intervene in Westbard cemetery debacle

A meeting last Monday between representatives of the Macedonia Baptist Church and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, regarding the dispute between the church and the Montgomery County Planning Department over how to investigate an African-American cemetery on the site of Westwood Tower in Bethesda, has resulted in Leggett suggesting the parties meet with a mediator. The letter, written jointly with Councilmember Roger Berliner (D - District 1), does not specify who would select the mediator, nor how it would be assured he or she would indeed be a "neutral, third-party mediator."

Leggett is also floating the idea that the County itself would end up picking up the tab for the cemetery investigation, instead of developer Equity One, which has proposed building a garage on the graveyard site. MBC Pastor-elect Segun Adebayo has expressed concern that "he who pays the piper calls the tune," regarding the potential that the investigation results could be skewed to favor Equity One as a result.

The Planning Board had arbitrarily imposed a 60-day deadline to complete the cemetery study - an absolutely farcical decision, given the complexity and difficulty of this particular search. Remains on the site lay under not only a parking lot, but as much as 60-80 feet of fill dirt. The graves themselves would be in clay, which by itself is hard for ground radar to penetrate. By definition, the study could not possibly have been completed within the 60 day timeframe.

Assuming the Planning Board defers to Leggett's recommendation, the 60-day deadline is gone at this point. However, Equity One retains the ability to move forward with development all around the cemetery site after the board's February decision. The letter doesn't specify what would happen next if the mediation fails.

In their letter, Leggett and Berliner describe a successful outcome of the mediation as both parties agreeing to "the scope and terms of the archaeological study and peer review." The latter was dealt a severe setback when Planning Director Gwen Wright "dismissed" the two anthropologists MBC had sought to handle the peer review, according to Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, head of the church's social justice ministry.
Anderson, flanked by police
officers, declines to accept a
petition from Macedonia Baptist
Church, despite having had at
least one private meeting with
Equity One
Leggett and Berliner did not mention the disrespectful treatment of church officials by the Planning Department and Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson over the last several weeks in their letter, which included the department summoning six Park Police vehicles and one Montgomery County police cruiser to their Silver Spring headquarters during a peaceful protest by MBC. Anderson then surrounded himself with armed police officers as Coleman-Adebayo attempted to speak with him. No County elected official has condemned these and other displays of institutional racism during the cemetery controversy, despite their oversight authority, and the fact that Anderson and the other board commissioners serve at the pleasure of the County Council.


Anonymous said...

I've not been following this story completely and I'm not entirely sure what you want.

So there may have been an African-American cemetery on the Westbard property and some bodies may not have been exhumed when the property was originally developed in the 60s. The remains are believed to be in an area that will not be initially redeveloped and the county has promised to excavate that area to see what's really there.

But you'd rather the entire redevelopment be stopped? If that's really the case, could you tell me why?

Anonymous said...

Who. cares.

Anonymous said...

As I understand the Planning Commission's stated position, EquityOne does not have the right to proceed with development on any of the properties bordering the Willett Branch, certainly not the entire Westbard Towers property, until the cemetery issue is resolved satisfactorily. They can proceed on the properties across Westbard Ave.

David Rotenstein said...

Archaeologist Michael Trinkley's comments in this NPR segment about African American graves on the University of Georgia campus apply here: the graves should be left alone.

Anonymous said...

The Church seeks to fully delineate the boundaries of the cemetery, which might extend beyond the area carved out by the Planning Department. Likewise, the Church seeks to build a museum honoring the African American community on the Westbard site, and contends that such a memorial should be planned before the developers plans are approved. This also warrants halting development on parcels adjacent to those carved out by the Planning Department.

Guidelines relating to the treatment of cemetery sites in the context of land use planning state that cemetery issues should be resolved as early as possible in the planning process, a fact acknowledged by the Planning Department (see Appendix to the Westbard sector plan, pp. 66-67 and pp.103-105.) Thus the need to fully delineate the cemetery site and decide the amount of land, if any, to be set aside for a memorial.

Anonymous said...

@ 6.38 PM: How would you feel if your ancestors or members of your place of worship had been buried at Westbard? Your comment is at best unfeeling.

@ 8.36 PM: The only land put on hold by the Planning Department is the Westwood Towers site. It is possible that the cemetery extends beyond that site. Macedonia Baptist Church also wants to see a museum about the historic African American community at Westbard built adjacent to the cemetery, and contends that development on adjacent parcels (example: the Bowl-Mor site) should halted to allow for consideration of a museum.

Anonymous said...

Pretty poor performance that the Montgomery County Planning Department is so out of touch that it needs a mediator to conclude a satisfactory contract for the archaeological study of the Westbard site.

If the County were as concerned and proactive as it says it is on the subject of the historic Westbard burial site, it would have already resolved this matter. The negotiations on the study have been underway for at least two months, perhaps longer.

For that matter, if the Planning Department has been concerned and proactive, why did it not make the matter of the cemetery public when the issue surfaced in 2015-- the year in which the Planning Department says it became aware of its existence?

Robert Dyer said...

One thing becoming clear through Bill Turque's article in the Post, and via the Save Westbard lawsuit - the Planning Department has had much more information about the cemetery than it has shared with the public. Much more.

Anonymous said...

What if Mexicans rather than African-Americans had been buried here?

That would be an interesting dilemma for Dyer.

Anonymous said...

6:36 - Or what if the cemetery had been under the Galleria or any other project in downtown Bethesda... would Dyer even raise a finger?

Robert Dyer said...

6:36/6:46: What would the difference be? You can't desecrate any cemetery - it's illegal.

Anonymous said...

"How would you feel if your ancestors or members of your place of worship had been buried at Westbard?"

I don't think anyone gives a rat's ass where there "ancestors" are buried. Certainly no one cared about this possible graveyard with who knows what in it at any point in our lifetimes. Anyways, the "who. cares." was related to Dyer going out of his way to try and politicize this issue. Obviously if graves are found they have to be relocated; it's not more complicated than that no matter how much Dyer tries to blame Planning or Leggett or Equity One or whoever.

Anonymous said...

@11:02: I feel that burial sites are sacred ground. The desecration of any cemetery is abhorrent to me, and shows monumental disregard for human life.

I don't think that Dyer is going out of his way to report thI story. The conduct of the Planning Department is a legitimate matter of public interest.