Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Consensus on MoCo Council burial sites bill: Too little, too late
Even one of the bill's lead sponsors, Councilmember Craig Rice (D - District 2) acknowledged that reality in remarks that followed citizen testimony. "We're starting from zero," Rice said. "This bill was never intended to address the Westbard cemetery." The problem is, the Council's PR office made the Westbard cemetery the dominant talking point when the bill was introduced, giving a false impression to residents who might not be following the drama closely that the Council was rushing to the rescue of the hidden black cemetery.
Resident David Kathan, part of a group of researchers who will soon publish a report on the history of the Westbard cemetery, said the bill needed many revisions and improvements to be effective. He noted that his team had identified several cemeteries currently not on the County's inventory. Kathan said cemetery inventories should be taken at all stages of development, not simply annually or at the point of subdivision.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Social Justice Director for Macedonia Baptist Church (whose past members are among those buried in the Westbard cemetery), criticized the provision in the accompanying Subdivision Regulation Amendment that would give the Montgomery County Planning Board the sole power to decide whether graves should be moved to benefit a private developer. She said a citizen board would need to oversee such a decision, due to the "long history of the Planning Board favoring development over community interests."
Coleman-Adebayo also called for the County to purchase the cemetery land from development partners Regency Centers and the County Housing Opportunities Commission, to allow for construction of a museum and memorial on it. Rice said he would support a "monument, grounds and a structure," without specifying a museum. She also advised that protection be given to whistieblowers in the County.
In my own testimony, I suggested that regulations and penalties are needed to protect cemeteries from development and desecration. Cemetery disclosures during land sales need to be examined, as well. "Changes are needed," I said, "because our community is horrified that the first free generation of Africans - whose bodies were bought and sold at slave markets - could 140 years later be bought again by a $4 billion corporation."
At a later point in the hearing, advocates for the Waters family cemetery in Germantown squared off against the developer who owns it. The developer, who owns a site between I-270 and Century Boulevard, said that a proposed bridge retaining wall near the cemetery would impact her ability to develop the northern portion of the site, which is where the Corridor Cities Transitway stop will be. The current location of the Waters cemetery also precludes north-south road access through the site, she said.
The landowner said she would have no problem relocating the cemetery to a park or public plaza in her future development, "just not where it currently is." A Maryland burial sites advocate disagreed with that sentiment. "A final resting place is exactly what it should be: final."
A Council worksession on the bill and amendment is tentatively scheduled for early October. Cemetery advocates have launched a petition demanding HOC scrap its plan to build the garage on the cemetery, and allow an archaeological survey of the cemetery site.