Mediation Canceled for Cemetery Dispute

Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 2:16pm

After six months and only two meetings, the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County has terminated the mediation process between Westbard developer Equity One (now Regency Centers), the County planning staff, and the Macedonia Baptist Church regarding the post-Civil War African American cemetery located on the banks of the Willett Branch behind the Westwood Tower Apartment. The developer, along with its partner in this project, the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) has proposed to build a parking garage and housing over the cemetery.  The goal of the mediation was to come to some agreement between all parties on how to prevent the further desecration of this hallowed land. 

We have no further information on what will happen to this sacred spot.  We would like to see the area become part of the proposed new Willett Branch Park, not only because of the sacredness of the land, but because it lies next to the stream.  We are asking that the county follow their own environmental guidelines and prohibit building in the 100 foot stream buffer.

Read a letter from the NAACP regarding the termination of the process HERE

Read a press release from Macedonia Baptist Church HERE

Background:

The cemetery has always been an issue for the Little Falls Watershed Alliance as it is located right in the heart of the proposed new park for the Westbard Sector.  It's in the stream valley buffer and lies between River Road and Westbard where the park spreads out and invites people to enter it.  Very early in the planning process, Equity One with their partner HOC, who leases the Westwood Tower Apartments, have wanted to build a parking structure in the buffer and on the cemetery.   Even before the new sector plan was developed, HOC stated that not being allowed to build a parking garage by in the stream valley buffer was a key obstacle to their providing affordable housing in the Westbard Sector.  Click HERE to see a copy of the letter dated February 2016.

In February 2017,  the planning board refused Equity One permission to build on the cemetery until a cemetery delineation had been done.  Macedonia Baptist Church, as the descendant community, was to be involved in the delineation process and determination of how the cemetery should be honored. The time table given at the meeting was to revisit the plan in April 2017.  In March 2017, the County hired the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County, to mediate the process.

Read Letter from County about Process HERE.

Read Letter from Macedonia Baptist Church HERE


From the Washington Post, March 17, 2017

Montgomery County looks to mediator to resolve Westbard cemetery dispute
by Bill Turque

Montgomery County will hire a mediator in an attempt to resolve an emotionally charged dispute over the search for a lost African American cemetery that has pitted a Baptist church in Bethesda against planning officials and a real estate developer.

The cemetery is believed to be under land north and northeast of the Westwood Tower Apartments on Westbard Drive. The area includes a paved parking lot and driveway. Records describing an early 20th century cemetery on the site were discovered by county staff in the process of evaluating a proposal for new construction from Equity One. The New York firm recently merged with the Florida-based Regency Centers Corp.

In a letter Thursday to Montgomery Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), said “added measures” were necessary “to assist those who believe their ancestors were buried on this site.”

Equity One hired a cultural resource firm to conduct a study of the site, but members of Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road objected to having the consultants work for the developer. The church has also said it wants to see a memorial and museum at the site honoring the black community that lived in Westbard from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

County Planning Director Gwen Wright agreed to hire two independent anthropologists chosen by the congregation to serve as peer reviewers. But Wright and the anthropologists have not been able to come to terms on the scope of their work.

Leggett and Berliner recommended that the Planning Board, church leaders and county representatives sit down with a mediator.

“Because the community remains understandably concerned about the process thus far, we agree that it would be wise for us to pause for a moment, bring all the parties together to address the various concerns that have been expressed and seek a solution,” they wrote.