An attempt to resolve the bitter dispute over an African American cemetery believed to lie in the shadow of a 15-story apartment house in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood was close to unraveling this week, as the Baptist church pressing to protect the site charged that it had been misled by county officials and the private developer that owns the property.
Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road announced Friday that it will not join a mediation set up by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to address disagreements over how to best conduct an archaeological study of the burial site, which records suggest is probably located under land north and northwest of Westwood Tower Apartments on Westbard Drive. That is in the middle of an area targeted for a massive redevelopment proposed by Florida-based Regency Centers, the major property owner in the neighborhood, which includes the Westwood Shopping Center.
Church leaders want to see the site preserved and memorialized with a museum that documents the African American community that was in Westbard as late as the 1950s.
They vehemently oppose the idea of a study funded by the property owner and called for an independent probe financed by the county. In January, Planning Director Gwen Wright proposed hiring two anthropologists selected by the church to perform a peer review on the company-financed study. But Wright and the academics could not reach an agreement.
Leggett and County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) proposed mediation last month, saying it “would be wise for us to pause for a moment” to sort out the church’s issues with Regency Centers, Wright and the county.
Macedonia members said they took the offer of mediation, scheduled to begin next week, as a promise that no work would be done until an accord was reached.
They were infuriated when they learned at a Thursday planning board meeting that an archaeological firm retained by Regency Centers was already performing preliminary research. Robert Kronenberg, a division chief for the planning department, told the board that field work would begin by mid-May.
“Lies! Lies! Lies!” about 20 congregants and supporters chanted as board chair Casey Anderson called for order.
Church leaders said that the company’s decision to go ahead made the idea of mediation pointless.
“To me, it’s almost like they put us to sleep believing there would be a mediation,” said the Rev. Segun Adebayo, the interim pastor. “If they are doing what they are doing behind us, what then are we mediating?”
Wright said this week that Regency Centers had the right to conduct any studies on its own property and, after at least three months of delay, the company and the planning board were eager to move the development project ahead.
“We’ve been holding them off in hopes of trying to get some agreement,” Wright said.
Eric Davidson, spokesman for Regency Centers (which purchased the original developer, Equity One, earlier this year) said Friday that the work being conducted by the Ottery Group, a Kensington archaeological and historic preservation firm, was strictly research, and that “nothing invasive” at the cemetery site was underway.
“We’re just having them do an initial look,” Davidson said. “Nothing has been moved or disturbed.”
He added that the company was still open to mediation.
“If we were asked, we would take direction from county on that,” he said.
Lyle Torp, managing director of the Ottery Group, said he understood why the church community was angry.
“I understand their concerns and that they don’t have as much of a say as they’d like. That’s an issue the county needs to carefully consider,” Torp said, reiterating that the firm’s study is strictly “desktop” research, and that no intrusive work would be done without community input.
He added that he was puzzled by Kronenberg’s statement that field work would commence next month. “We’ve never been asked about a timeline,” Torp said.
In proposing the mediation, to be conducted by the nonprofit Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County, Leggett and Berliner raised the possibility that the county would fund its own study of the site on behalf of the church, addressing concerns about the objectivity of the company probe. Leggett said Friday that he was puzzled by the church’s response.
“I find that particularly odd,” he said. “They’re free to do what they want to do. I laid a path for them to follow that I thought would be helpful. I’m not sure what their motivation is.”
The situation remained in flux late Friday. Ramona Bell-Pearson, an assistant chief administrative officer for the county, said she spoke with Adebayo and that “he seemed at least open to reconsidering.”
But Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the pastor’s wife and head of Macedonia’s social justice ministry, said in an email that the church’s position was unchanged. She said Macedonia stood by Adebayo’s original statement earlier Friday.
“We were deceived, misled and ambushed. It was a shameful display of dishonor by county leaders,” Adebayo said.