Harvey M. Matthews Sr., 72, leads a protest at the spot where he and other members of his church say an African American cemetery was bulldozed decades ago for a development project in Bethesda. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to inventory and protect old cemeteries that could be affected by new development.

The legislation directs the county's Planning Board to create a list of burial sites, to be updated at least annually. It also amends county law to require applicants who want to subdivide a property to research the boundaries of burial sites on their land and, in most cases, protect them from development.

Officials said the bill could help avoid what seems to have happened in Bethesda's Westbard neighborhood in the 1960s, when the construction of a high-rise apartment building probably disturbed an African American cemetery.

A proposal to redevelop the site has drawn attention to that little-known history, prompting protests and demands from a nearby African American church to halt the development project and memorialize the cemetery.

"This is an important issue for a number of folks in our community — especially in our African American community, where we don't have necessarily the same sort of historic markers that have been retained as some of the other burial sites," said Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), the only African American on the nine-person council. "It's part of our heritage and our history."


An apartment building soars over a parking lot, believed to have been built over an African American cemetery, in the Westbard neighborhood of Bethesda. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Eileen McGuckian, president of Montgomery Preservation, said the law — which is similar to statutes on the books in Howard and Prince George’s counties — is “the first time the county has identified burial sites as important areas worthy of historical preservation.”

McGuckian has compiled a list of more than 350 burial sites in the county, adding that there are more yet to be discovered.

But leaders of Macedonia Baptist Church, who have led the protests of the new development in Westbard, say they do not support the legislation because it gives the county the ability to allow burial sites to be relocated under certain circumstances, including if retaining the sites would deny the property owner “reasonable use of their property.”

“They are placing primacy of commerce over primacy of sacred space, and that’s where we fundamentally differ,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, chair of Macedonia’s social justice ministry.

Coleman-Adebayo also said it was her understanding that the legislation would not affect either the Westbard redevelopment project or the majority of projects in Montgomery, many of which have already gone through the subdivision process.

But Gwen Wright, the county’s planning director, called those criticisms “untrue.”

Wright said a “very large percentage” of development projects in the county, including those in urban areas, go through a preliminary plan of subdivision and would thus be subject to the new requirements.

“This is going to take a lot of work,” she said.

County officials said it could cost up to $260,000 to develop the inventory of burial sites and $118,300 annually for a staff member to review sites that are part of subdivision applications and research additional sites.

Wright said that if the Westbard project goes forward — “and that’s a big ‘if’ at this point” — then Regency Centers, a ­Florida-based company that also owns the Westwood Shopping Center, would have to follow the county’s new rules.

At the same time, it is unclear whether any evidence of the original burial sites would be found because the land was paved over decades ago.

“If the property comes in for redevelopment, and if burial sites are found, and if the owner proposes moving any of those sites, then the Planning Board would use the criteria developed and make a judgment,” Wright said.

Any decision to move a burial site is subject to review by the state attorney, whose approval is required to relocate human remains, under state law.

Negotiations between the Macedonia Church and a county commission about how to memorialize the former cemetery site stalled in October, and residents who say they would be harmed by the redevelopment plan are suing the county, making the future of the project uncertain.