Leggett, Berliner Request Mediator in Westbard Cemetery Search Controversy
County leaders say members of the Macedonia Baptist Church don’t feel comfortable with the process to search for possible remains in the Bethesda neighborhood
Google Maps Streetview
County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council President Roger Berliner are requesting that a third-party mediator try to settle a dispute between the Montgomery County Planning Board and members of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda, which is concerned the process for searching for a long-forgotten black cemetery at a site in the Westbard neighborhood is not being handled properly.
Leggett and Berliner sent a letter Thursday to board chairman Casey Anderson asking that the board and members of the church meet with the mediator to find a mutually agreed upon path forward to survey the site.
Members of the church have been protesting against developer Equity One’s plan to redevelop the neighborhood because they believe their ancestors’ remains may exist underneath a site now partially covered by the Westwood Towers parking lot.
In response to the church’s concerns, the county’s planning department had required Equity One to conduct an archaeological survey to determine if evidence of the cemetery could be found. Gwen Wright, the planning director, said the department had proposed using county funds to pay two academic archaeologists to oversee the survey, but had not reached an agreement with them to do so.
Leggett and Berliner’s letter states the church members are concerned “that allowing the developer to not only pay for the study, but to also pay for the peer review panel prejudices the objectivity of the outcome. The group is quite wary of both the Planning Department, Planning Board and developer in this process.”
Last month, the board approved a development proposal for the Westbard neighborhood that would include 1.8 million square feet of residential, retail and commercial development at and around the Westwood Shopping Center, which includes the Giant grocery store.
However, the board excluded the towers site from the approval, meaning no development can move forward at the site, because of the ongoing controversy about the possible cemetery.
Previously, members of the church protested outside the board’s headquarters in Silver Spring and aired their concerns about the possible cemetery site.
Berliner and Leggett are asking that the process to determine if the cemetery exists be halted until the mediator’s work is complete and an agreeable solution can be reached. After the mediation process, the county may consider funding both the study and the peer review of it, according to the leaders.
“My basic feeling on this is having a mediator is a good idea and indeed I look forward to working with Mr. Leggett’s office to implement this,” Wright said.
Initially, the Planning Board had wanted the archaeological survey to be completed two months after the Feb. 23 approval of the development plan for the area, according to Wright. However, with the addition of the mediator, she said she wasn’t sure if that remains possible.