Ten­sions rise anew over burial site

Mont­gomery com­mis­sion vows not to build garage, but ac­tivists are un­moved

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY RACHEL SIEGEL

Frus­trated by ac­cu­sa­tions that it plans to build a park­ing garage where an African Amer­i­can burial ground once stood, a Mont­gomery County com­mis­sion laid it out on pa­per last week: That’s not hap­pen­ing.

The long-lost ceme­tery is said to have been lo­cated on land north and north­east of the West­wood Tower Apart­ments in Bethesda, which was paved over as a park­ing lot decades ago. For years now, the county’s Hous­ing Op­por­tu­ni­ties Com­mis­sion has met fierce back­lash from ac­tivists from nearby Mace­do­nia Bap­tist Church — a sur­viv­ing ves­tige of the area’s his­toric black com­mu­nity — who say that any devel­op­ment on the prop­erty, as well as the ex­ist­ing park­ing lot, des­e­crates their an­ces­tors’ bones.

Yet the com­mis­sion, which con­trols the site, has had no in­ten­tion of building a park­ing garage on the lot, said Shauna Sor­rells, the com­mis­sion’s di­rec­tor of leg­isla­tive and pub­lic af­fairs. The al­le­ga­tions are based on sketches, made two years ago as part of a mas­ter plan process, that were never acted upon.

“Have we moved for­ward with ini­ti­at­ing devel­op­ment beyond the mas­ter plan and sketch plan process? No, we have not,” Sor­rells said, call­ing charges to the con­trary “a false nar­ra­tive.”

The state­ment is­sued last week reads, in part, “at present, and for the fore­see­able fu­ture, the Com­mis­sion has no plan to de­velop the prop­erty.” “It’s not new,” Sor­rells said. Church mem­bers are un­moved. They plan to protest in front of the church Sun­day and deemed the com­mis­sion’s state­ment a “white­wash­ing.”

“It’s un­ac­cept­able. That’s the short of it,” said Mar­sha Cole­man-Ade­bayo, chair of Mace­do­nia’s so­cial jus­tice min­istry.

The long of it is that the park­ing lot ad­ja­cent to the apart­ment tower sits atop the burial ground, church mem­bers say. They are de­mand­ing a mu­seum or memo­rial on the prop­erty hon­or­ing the black com­mu­nity that once lived in the area. They also say the state­ment from last week gives no in­di­ca­tion that the com­mis­sion won’t change its mind on building the park­ing garage later.

The state­ment says that the com­mis­sion will con­duct a study of the site if it de­cides to move for­ward with any devel­op­ment.

Last month, ten­sion be­tween the hous­ing com­mis­sion and the church boiled over af­ter county-spon­sored me­di­a­tions be­tween the groups fell apart and church mem­bers protested at the com­mis­sion’s monthly meet­ing.

And Oct. 31, the Mont­gomery County Coun­cil voted unan­i­mously to pro­tect and in­ven­tory his­toric ceme­ter­ies that could lie in the paths of new devel­op­ment projects.

Con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the burial ground has be­come a fo­cal point of con­cern over broader plans to re­de­velop the West­bard neigh­bor­hood.

Yet it is only one piece of the griev­ances that vo­cal res­i­dents have raised with the county and Re­gency Cen­ters, a Florida-based com­pany and a ma­jor prop­erty owner in West­bard, in­clud­ing the West­wood Shop­ping Cen­ter.

The West­wood Tower prop­erty is owned by Re­gency and has been leased by the com­mis­sion since 1997 to pro­vide af­ford­able Sor­rells said the com­mis­sion will be pur­chas­ing the land early next year.

Re­gency said the com­mis­sion’s stance on not de­vel­op­ing its lot has no bear­ing on Re­gency’s own projects in West­bard. De­tails of those plans are expected to be­come pub­lic early next year.

A cit­i­zens’ group called Save West­bard says the en­tire West­bard re­de­vel­op­ment project — com­plete with new town­houses, high-rise apart­ments and a mod­ern­ized shop­ping strip — will fur­ther crowd schools and roads.

Res­i­dents who op­pose the increased den­sity say the de­vel­oper, Eq­uity One, and the county col­luded to bring ur­ban devel­op­ment into a tra­di­tion­ally sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hood. Re­gency ac­quired all of Eq­uity One’s hold­ings in March.

A law­suit pend­ing in Mont­gomery County Cir­cuit Court al­leges that the county’s plan­ning board did not com­plete en­vi­ron­men­tal assess­ments re­hous­ing. quired by county law, that proper pub­lic hear­ings on the sec­tor plan were not held and that the plan it­self vi­o­lated con­tract zon­ing laws. Mace­do­nia Bap­tist Church is not a party to the law­suit.

Michele Rosen­feld, who is rep­re­sent­ing res­i­dents in the Save West­bard suit, said her clients agreed with church mem­bers that the com­mis­sion of­fered lit­tle as­sur­ance that it would not build a park­ing garage in the fu­ture.

As for the rest of the West­bard devel­op­ment: “We’re still wait­ing for a de­ci­sion from the court,” she said.

“It’s un­ac­cept­able. That’s the short of it.” Mar­sha Cole­man-Ade­bayo, chair of Mace­do­nia Bap­tist Church’s so­cial jus­tice min­istry

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