The Montgomery County Planning Board once again treated Macedonia Baptist Church representatives and supporters as second-class citizens in today's discussion of the African-American cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda, where developer Regency Centers and the county's Housing Opportunities Commission want to construct a parking garage. Once again, the church was not given a seat at the hearing table, for what ended up as another farcical bit of Kabuki theater.
Chair Casey Anderson and the Board utterly ignored the March 16 letter from County Executive Ike Leggett, which asked for a mediator to resolve the dispute between the church and the Planning Department. Instead, Anderson and the Board rubber-stamped a new cemetery investigation plan that the public was not given advance notice of, and will be entirely controlled by property owner Regency Centers.
Robert Kronenberg, in charge of Area 1 planning for the department, told the Board that Planning Director Gwen Wright wrote to Regency Centers on March 8, and told them to begin the study. That despite the department dismissing the two anthropologists the church had sought to oversee the Ottery Group's cemetery investigation. This means that the contract and scope of work were decided with no public transparency or input from Macedonia Baptist Church. And that Leggett knew Ottery Group was already under contract when he wrote the letter.
The investigation, the details of which were not made public by the Planning Board nor the department, will take about 3 months to complete, Kronenberg claimed. That would mean it would be finished around June 8. Ottery Group has begun its initial research, he said, but not any field work at the cemetery itself.
"It might be prudent to come back to you mid-May...to find out where they are," Kronenberg told the Board. Realizing they were again being shut out of the discussion, representatives of the church - who have past members buried at the cemetery, which served a black community that existed for 100 years after Maryland emancipation on River Road - spoke up. "I'm going to have to ask you not to disrupt this meeting," Anderson said, before interrupting the meeting himself to avoid the public embarrassment of silencing church representatives.
"Just to finish up some of the talking points," Kronenberg said - appropriately - when the meeting resumed.
Kronenberg then read Leggett's March 16 letter out loud, in its entirety, something I can't recall staff ever doing during a meeting. One assumes the Board commissioners would have read the letter a long time ago. As he read, protesters chanted in background.
Wright responded to Leggett's letter on March 24, Kronenberg said. Importantly, he did not say the department had committed to a mediator, but that they would work on that "in parallel" with the Ottery Group investigation. The problem is, that makes no sense, because Leggett's proposals - much like the anthropologists the church wanted to provide independent oversight - needed to be in place before Ottery's investigation begins. Of course, that is no longer possible.
"Do we agree on the change of dates?" Anderson asked his colleagues, despite no motion to that effect by any Board member. There was no dissent from the Board. Anderson then hastily adjourned the meeting for lunch, as protesters chanted, "Lies! Lies! Lies!" Planning staff, including Deputy Planning Director Rose Krasnow, tried to quiet protesters. "Don't tell me to shush," responded Marsha Coleman-Adebayo of Macedonia Baptist Church, "I pay your salary."
We now know what many suspected months ago:
This is a sham cemetery investigation.
The March 8 action by Gwen Wright, and today's inaction by the Board, means the cemetery investigation is now fully in the hands of the private developer, Regency Centers (formerly known as Equity One, which merged with Regency). There is no oversight whatsoever, and no independent review.
With such a short timeline for the "field work," there is no way a legitimate cemetery investigation and delineation could be completed by May, for a report filed in June. It's clear there's something they plan to hide, or else they would be providing full transparency.
In short, as MBC Pastor-elect Rev. Segun Adebayo has said, "he who pays the piper, calls the tune." That has not only proven true in the Westbard sector plan process at the Board and County Council, but now with the cemetery. With no independent verification of the investigation and results, how can a report funded by the developer itself have credibility?
There is 60' or more of fill dirt between the asphalt and the graves below, which are interred in clay. All three of those factors render ground penetrating radar essentially useless. And there is no way a major excavation of the site could be completed by May, for a report in June. Period. They don't even have permits from the County yet.
Once again, we are learning the fix is in, and that the Planning Board and County Council will stop at nothing to give Regency Centers what they want at any cost. We've learned Leggett and Council President Roger Berliner have no standing at the Board, as their already-weak and half-hearted letter was just completely ignored by the commissioners. That's humiliating for both men. The Board is appointed and serves at the pleasure of the County Council, and it's telling that the Council has failed to terminate any of the commissioners since their initial disrespectful actions toward the church months ago, and for failing to take seriously the very serious cemetery matter.
There has been extensive media coverage of the cemetery issue (although not all of it objective or factual, unfortunately), but it appears the Board, department and the County Council will steamroll ahead with putting a garage atop an African-American cemetery no matter how bad they end up looking. Considering some on the Council were willing to end their careers for a "yes" vote on Regency Centers' Westbard concept, perhaps that's not surprising.
But barring intervention by the Council, or a federal level organization like the Congressional Black Caucus or the FBI, further desecration of the historic cemetery is a real, and shameful, possibility.