Monday, March 13, 2017

Westbard cemetery search integrity in question after experts are "dismissed" by Planning Dept.

Macedonia Baptist Church
With only six weeks left to investigate the African-American cemetery on land where a developer wants to build in the Westbard area of Bethesda, the integrity of that challenging task has come into further question. Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road, the only remnant of the historic community tied to the cemetery, had sought to have renowned anthropologists Michael Blakey and Rachel Watkins participate in the investigation. Now both have been "dismissed" from the project by the Montgomery County Planning Department, according to Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, director of MBC's social justice ministry.

The Planning Department had dragged out negotiations with both, and had sought a gag order on what information the two would be able to relay to the church and community. They now appear to have been entirely dropped from the case. "[Planning Director] Gwen Wright has decided that she's not going to credit either Blakey or Watkins," Coleman-Adebayo said at a Sunday meeting hosted by Save Westbard. She added that the church is now concerned that even the preferred firm to head the investigation could be replaced with one chosen by the department, or developer Equity One. "We think their fate is going to be the same," she said of the Silver Spring-based Ottery Group.

Church members, and the last living former residents of the historic River Road community, have been treated disrespectfully by the Planning Department and Planning Board as they have sought to avoid having the cemetery desecrated for the second time in history. Its graves were first disturbed during the construction of Westwood Tower in the late 1960s, and substantial oral history accounts suggest some remains on the site were illegally relocated by contractors working for developer Lazlo Tauber.

Instead of listening to and respecting the concerns of church members at a public hearing last month, the Planning Board doubled down on disrespect by not only ignoring these concerns and approving Equity One's sketch plan, but also demanding the cemetery investigation be completed in only six weeks. Such a timeline on a complex undertaking like this virtually ensures the results will have no credibility. The remaining graves on the site are mostly under a layer of asphalt and perhaps 60' or more of fill dirt, and are within clay, all presenting challenges to detection via ground penetrating radar. Just pulling the permits for such work from Montgomery County will take time in itself, and the clock is ticking.

Church members are now "between a rock and a hard place," Coleman-Adebayo said, as they prepare to meet with County Executive Ike Leggett today. Their new concern is that Equity One will be allowed to select the search firm, and it will end up being one that will "tell the planning [board] whatever Equity One would like them to know.

Those buried on the Westwood Tower site represent the first generation of emancipated African-Americans, Coleman-Adebayo said, "and they were treated like garbage." She said this generation now fighting the county's rush job at Westbard "will not allow [them] to do it a second time."


Anonymous said...

Yes, the experts conclusion could be written before they even get off the T2 bus and set foot on that sea of pavement. The amount of filthy corruption between the county government and the development firms is astounding. Too much money involved. The county will play along with their political gamesmanship but in the end those Black folks efforts were a total waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Dyer thinks he's found his Saturday Night Massacre.

"Those black folks"

Is that the same as "you people"?

Anonymous said...

There are people still alive today who remember the cemetery. Why is this all coming up now, and not in 2013 when Wetsbard planning started? Did these people not remember it back then?

Anonymous said...

8:00 AM Dyer has been talking about and has reporting on the cemetery issue for's not new.
Even if it was new, what difference does it make? If we just learned there's a cemetery there, you can't build on it.

Anonymous said...

Robert, as a small business owner in Westwood, Just wanted to mention that we got a visit buy the new property manager from Regency Centers that purchased Equity One. They came by on March 3rd to tell us that as of March 1st, Regency Centers is now in control of the Westwood shopping center. Just noticed that people are still calling it Equity One when it is now a different company that owns it. Am surprised that most people don't even know it has changed hands. Have they "Regency Centers" commented on the cemetery yet?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for letting us know that Regency Centers (with whom Equity One has merged) is managing Westbard as of March 1. Some things for Regency to consider:

-Staging construction so that small shops can operate at Westbard during construction. If this is not possible, help these businesses to facilitate moves within the area and provide moving allowances.
-Earning the good will of the surrounding community by undertaking a retention program for the small shops now operating in the center. If nothing else, this will enhance pre-leasing for the Westwood I retail space.

A number of the small shops have been Westbard tenants for decades. They deserve better than month-to-month leases and uncertainty. A retention program for the small retailers will earn the gratitude of nearby residents and good PR for Regency Centers-- something that the controversial Westbard project needs desperately.

Anonymous said...

As a long-time Bethesda resident, I am angry and embarrassed at the treatment of Macedonia Baptist Church by Montgomery County planning officials. While the County asserts that it has been sensitive and proactive on the matter of the presumed cemetery, its concern appears to have been directed at keeping the matter out of the public eye and limiting the scope of physical investigations so as to minimize disruption of the Westbard redevelopment.

Had the County officials been truly sensitive and proactive, they would have informed the public about the cemetery prior to the adoption of the Westbard sector plan and required that archaeological investigations be completed *before* preparation of the developer's sketch plan.

The Macedonia Baptist Church supports the pending Westbard lawsuit in order to invalidate the current sector plan and assure a new planning process that ensures an appropriate review of the cemetery matter. I suggest that anyone concerned about the cemetery donate to the lawsuit by visiting the website of SaveWestbard (

Robert Dyer said...

11:10: Thanks for that update. The name issue has been complicated - at times, I've called them Regency Centers/Equity One back before the merger was final. However, after the merger was announced, the Preliminary Plan public meeting had no trace of Regency logos or references. Similarly, the sketch plan process continued to only mention Equity One.

Finally, during the cemetery protests, Equity One was the target of chants. So in order that readers know who I'm talking about, I've been forced to keep using Equity One.

Here's my theory: Regency Centers wisely recognizes "Equity One" has negative connotations in the community. They are going to use the Equity One brand to get through a very unpleasant year ahead in which they will be steamrolling over a majority of the community. Then Regency Centers will, at the appropriate time, rebrand the development as a Regency Centers property. Sort of like "evil" Comcast becoming Xfinity.

Please keep me posted on how you are being treated by the new management. You can email me privately, and remain anonymous if I need to quote you, to protect your privacy and business. You have the support of myself and the neighborhood behind you.