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.