Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Leggett asks Westbard developer to enter mediation in cemetery dispute

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett sent a letter on May 2 to Westbard developer Regency Centers, asking them to enter mediation with a "neutral" arbitrator to resolve a dispute with Macedonia Baptist Church over an African-American cemetery on the Westwood Tower site in Bethesda. Representatives of the Bethesda church, and their supporters in the community, rallied outside the County Council building yesterday morning, before heading into the Council meeting for a silent vigil.

Church leaders received a copy of Leggett's letter to Regency Centers early yesterday afternoon. They were told by Leggett's office that Regency had not replied to the letter as of yesterday, a full week later. On the one hand, this seems a bad move akin to a New York developer ignoring an urgent letter from Mayor Bill de Blasio. On the other hand, there has been a relentless urgency to move forward on the redevelopment of more than 20 acres of Regency Centers-owned property by the developer, the Planning Board and the County Council. It seems unlikely that Regency would want to enter mediation now, particularly as they can realistically feel that most of the County's corrupt elected officials are squarely behind them.

Councilmember Marc Elrich has been unable to get a substantial number of his colleagues to sign a letter he has planned to send to the Planning Board for the last week, asking the Board to table a June 9 agenda item on the Westwood Tower property. Elrich, the only councilmember to openly support the church over the last few months, said Tuesday he will send the letter by himself if his colleagues won't support it. Protesters touched base with Councilmember Tom Hucker yesterday, and Councilmember Craig Rice agreed to set up a meeting with church leaders in the coming days. Rice said he would not agree to sign Elrich's letter before that meeting takes place.

A previous letter from Leggett and Council President Roger Berliner pleading with the Planning Board to enter into mediation with the church, which was seeking to have two anthropologists of its choice oversee the private cemetery investigation firm hired by Regency Centers, was simply torn up and ignored by the Board. Instead, Planning Director Gwen Wright secretly gave Regency the go-ahead to hire their own investigative firm, The Ottery Group. Church officials have argued that study would not be considered legitimate, because there is no independent oversight, and the study is being paid for by Regency. "He who pays the piper," MBC Pastor Rev. Segun Adebayo has said, "calls the tune."

According to land records and obituaries, the cemetery has existed since the early 20th century. There is no record of any official relocation of remains from the graveyard, which was already desecrated once by construction workers during construction of Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. Now, Regency Centers and Montgomery County are proposing to build a parking garage on top of the graves.

Leggett's letter stresses that the church cannot agree to enter mediation until Regency Centers agrees to halt their own cemetery study, of which no details have been shared with the church or the public. It therefore is unknown what stage their investigation is at. He asks Regency to "let me know your position as soon as possible."
Protesters speak with
Councilmember Tom Hucker
Councilmember Craig Rice (right)
said a meeting with church
leaders would be possible in
the coming days


32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Any news on the Rockville HS case?

MDBGA said...

Thanks for the update! I am glad to see the community taking action for a great cause!

Roald said...

I hope Westbard gets a museum on the site to document the history.

Maloney Concrete said...

Good to see some Councilmembers open to working with the church.

Anonymous said...

There MAY be graves on the land. I think they have a good chance of being right.

But we need to remember it's still speculation. No one knows for sure.

"proposing to build a parking garage on top of the possible underlying graves."

Exaggerating never helps the cause. I wish them well.

Anonymous said...

Pound sand Dyer

Anonymous said...

7:30 - What did sand ever do to you?

Anonymous said...

Good for County Executive Leggett for requesting that Regency Centers meet with a mediator on the cemetery issue.

What is tremendously sad is the failure of the County Council (with the exception of Councilmember Elrich) to do the same.

To resolve this matter, County Council and the County Executive should request the Planning Department, with County funds, to either: 1)conduct an independent study of the cemetery issue or 2)hire independent experts to oversee the ccemetery study being conducted by Regency Centers.

The real issue here is that the Planning Department, with the concurrence of the Planning Board, has the authority to undertake either of the above actions, especially if County funding is provided. That the Planning Department and the Planning Board have refused to do so shows tremendous contempt for the community. If the County Council does not challenge this stance, the Council will be displaying contempt for the people who pay their salaries.

Whether or not you support the Westbard project, the disregard for the community shown by the Planning Department and the Planning Board should alarm you. It is time to revise Montgomery County's planning process to ensure that County residents have greater input than they do now. As it stands, the process is responsive to the needs of developers, leaving citizens largely unrepresented. A better balance needs to be restored.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that the Planning Department and Planning Board continue to disregard Macedonia Baptist Church on the matter of the cemetery investigation. To put it bluntly: what is wrong with these unelected bureaucrats?

Anonymous said...

Macedonia backed out of mediation setup by county before. Bunch of babies....

Anonymous said...

Why is the county council & county executive *requesting* jack from the planning board? Doesn't the planning board report to one of them? I'm honestly curious why people treat the planning board like they're some untouchable, separate entity. They must report to someone, and be accountable to someone. Why isn't that someone answering?

Robert Dyer said...

10:43: That someone is indeed the County Council, at whose pleasure the planning commissioners serve.

Robert Dyer said...

6:38: I'm just going on the facts, as all journalists should. All documentation supports graves still being there. There is not a single document indicating a legal removal of remains. Until a study proves otherwise, we must rely on actual documentation.

Anonymous said...

Do you also believe in guilty until proven innocent? Your writing seems to support that notion as well.

Anonymous said...

But you aren't a journalist. You're a blogger. Journalists aren't biased.

Anonymous said...

10:43 AM and Robert: My understanding is that the County Council *appoints* the members of the Planning Board, but does not remove them. The Planning Board is under the supervision of the Maryland National Parks and Planning Commission (MNPPC), an autonomous entity. Yes, the County Council has significant influence over the Planning Board, but does not control it. Hence the use of the phrase "request."

If there is wrongdoing by the Planning Department or Planning Board, the MNPPC has an inspector general. Presumably, there is a process for removing malefactors if wrongdoing is uncovered.

The MNPPC was established as an autonomous entity in order to provide professional planning services insulated from corruption. Unfortunately, the current setup has led to a developer-friendly system that is unresponsive to public concerns.


Anonymous said...

10:40 AM: Macedonia Baptist Church has declined to participate in mediation to this point because:
-The developer began the cemetery investigation without the input of the Church, rendering mediation meaningless.
-Neither the Planning Department nor the developer advised the Church that the cemetery investigation had been started, while continuing to dangle the possibility of mediation in the media. The Church learned that the cemetery investigation had been started in public testimony by Planning Department staff in April, a month after a contract for an archaeological study had been signed.
-The Planning Department has never explained why it continued to mislead the Church and the public by not revealing that a contract for the cemetery investigation had been executed and the work begun.

Macedonia Baptist Church has acted with integrity, but has not been treated with honesty and respect. Why should the Church enter into sham mediation? Fortunately, the Church is now represented by a capable land use lawyer.

Anonymous said...

The Planning Department and Planning Board routinely impose conditions on developers. That's part of the land use approval process. It would have been very easy for the Planning Department and Board to require that the archaeological study comply with standards set by experts acceptable to the Church. Instead, the Planning Department and the Planning Board gave the Church the run-around and let the developers do pretty much what they wanted. How come???



Anonymous said...

Four representatives of the church and five old white NIMBYs. No wonder Dyer was so slow to write his report.

Anyway, what's up with that Rockville HS case? Have there been any new developments in that case during the past three days?

Anonymous said...

4:52 pm, again. Did some more research: the MNCPPC (Maryland National Capital Parks & Planning Commission), the organization that runs the Planning Board and the Planning Department, is financed largely by property tax revenues from Montgomery County and Prince George's County. In Montgomery County, annual appropriations for MNCPPC are proposed in the County Executive's budget and approved/disapproved by the County Council. In 2016, the Montgomery County planning budget was roughly $19.3 million.

While MNCPPC is operated autonomously, the County Executive and the County Council set the MoCo planning budget. That should give the Council and the County Executive a good deal of influence on Planning Department/Planning Board decisions.

So if Ike Leggett wants mediation on the cemetery investigation contract, why isn't it happening? Is the Council opposed? Is Leggett's recommendation merely for public show? What is really happening behind the scenes here? So far, Leggett, Berliner and Elrich have called for mediation. You'd think that this would be sufficient to make mediation happen, especially as mediation has been endorsed by the Washington Post.

What's the story behind the scenes?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the research, 4:52/6:14. Yeah, hard to believe that Gwen Wright at the Planning Department and Casey Anderson, the Planning Board chair, would defy Leggett and Berliner on whether mediation should be conducted on the cemetery contract. Gotta believe that something else is happening that we don't know about.

This would make a great story for an investigative reporting team. ProPublica, maybe?

Anonymous said...

If Dyer weren't following this story, we'd be completely in the dark. Thanks for covering this, Robert.

Anonymous said...

Support local journalism like Robert Dyer is producing here on Westbard.

Robert Dyer said...

4:44: Journalists aren't biased? How gullible are you?

Robert Dyer said...

6:14: That is what makes a compelling case for #DefundThePlanningBoard. Those clowns can't do squat without their funding.

Robert Dyer said...

4:52: Best case scenario is Westbard lawsuit discovery process uncovers a smoking gun we can refer to the FBI. I guarantee an FBI investigation ends with several perp walks outside of 100 Maryland Avenue and 7272 Georgia Avenue.

#LockThemUp

Robert Dyer said...

6:02: Are you mentally ill?

Anonymous said...

8:27: I am rubber, you are glue.

Anonymous said...

Dyer @ 8:26: even if nothing FBI-worthy is revealed by the Westbard discovery, I am hopeful that the sector plan will be invalidated and returned to the Planning Department, Planning Board and County Council for a re-do. The sector planning process did not reflect the opinions of the surrounding community. I have been shocked and disgusted at how residents have been ignored and disparaged. While I agree that new housing and retail should be built at Westbard, the project is surrounded by single-family neighborhoods and overbuilds/over crowds the area. Unfortunately, public opinion was ignored.

Anonymous said...

I hope they return the Westbard plan to the Planning Board so Dan Reed! can make it GREATER!

Robert Dyer said...

3:40: Reed would be powerless on the Board if the Council and MoCo cartel's now-exposed conspiracy to appoint him succeeds. He would replace a commissioner who was a rubber stamp vote on every development. He even shares her shocking lack of concern for the African-American cemetery at Westbard. But he'd just be another sure vote replacing a sure vote. Impotent.

What the appointment will represent, is the Council's position on the current disarray at the Board and Planning Department. Unfortunately, none of the candidates appears well suited to address the anti-resident bent of the current Board, nor the hostile relationship they've fostered with residents.

So the choices range from a competent, here-we-go-again Bruce Romer, to a Wall Street-by-way-of-Mao zealous, in-your-face urbanization shock trooper like Dan Reed. Someone who believes the large single family homes of Bethesda and Chevy Chase should be converted into boarding houses is ill-prepared to serve on the Planning Board.

The Council's vote on this will be just one more election issue next year. A Dan Reed appointment, after his clear endorsement by developers who have current projects before the Board that Reed would vote on, would be a fatal move by any incumbent.

MDBGA said...

So Robert, Is there anybody you would recommend we look into who might be a better fit that you would be able to provide with information on?