Bethesda Church Opposes Westbard Plan with Silent Protest at Planning Board Meeting

Group argues proposed development could disturb African-American cemetery


A group of protestors gathered outside the Montgomery County Planning Department headquarters on Thursday.

Bethany Rodgers

Members and supporters of Macedonia Baptist Church staged a silent protest during Thursday’s meeting of the county planning board, objecting to a development plan they fear will disturb an African-American burial ground on River Road in Bethesda.

This was the second demonstration organized by the church members, who held their first rally last weekend against Equity One’s proposal to overhaul the Westbard area in Bethesda.

A rough outline for the redevelopment is scheduled to come before the Montgomery County Planning Board next week, but congregants at the century-old church argue the issue should be tabled until the completion of an archeological survey of the suspected cemetery. As yet, they’ve been unsuccessful in their quest for a postponement. So on Thursday, they delivered a 150-signature petition in hopes of swaying board members to their perspective.

“We’re dealing with a tone-deaf planning board at this point,” church member Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said outside the planning headquarters. “The community has spoken that the Bethesda African-American cemetery is a sacred site that people in our community want respected and want to learn more about.”

The county’s planning director, Gwen Wright, said her department agrees with the church on many counts. Planning staff has tracked down historical evidence that the River Road property across from the church was used as a cemetery in the early 20th century. Wright said an effort is under way to scan the area with ground-penetrating radar that will reveal any human remains or grave shafts.

If the examination does find burial sites on the land, which was converted into a parking lot about 50 years ago, Wright said she’d seek to dedicate the property as park space.

“We are not going to rush anything,” she said.

The sketch plan that officials are preparing to consider Feb. 23 outlines a general vision for the area and would not grant Equity One permission to build anything on the suspected cemetery property, Wright added. If approved, the development would bring numerous community benefits, such as affordable housing and new parks, and planners don’t want to put the entire project on hold for the archeological review, she said.

The New York-based developer’s proposal to construct 1.8 million square feet of retail, residential and commercial space and rebuild the Westwood Shopping Center has met significant community resistance.

And Coleman-Adebayo argues the site analysis is a necessary first step before any part of the development plan should move forward.

She and about 10 fellow demonstrators filed into the planning board meeting room Thursday afternoon and stood silently after lining up against the rear wall, as officials considered a proposal to build an inn in Potomac. At first, she held up a sign that read, “Respect.” After a police officer instructed her to lower the poster, she and her companions raised their fists.

During a break, the group broke into song—“Equity One, we shall not be moved”—to an audience of reporters and surprised land-use attorneys.

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