Negotiations between a Baptist church in Bethesda and a county commission have reached an apparent impasse over a controversial redevelopment project on what is believed to be an historic African American cemetery.
The black cemetery is said to be beneath land north and northeast of the Westwood Tower Apartments on Westbard Drive. Since 1997, the county's housing opportunities commission has leased the Westwood Tower property to provide affordable housing. The site is targeted for redevelopment by Regency Centers, a Florida-based company that also owns the Westwood Shopping Center.
But leaders from the Macedonia Baptist Church want to see a museum and a memorial on the land commemorating the black community that existed along River Road until the mid-20th century.
On Wednesday, roughly a dozen people affiliated with the church protested at a housing commission meeting, hoisting cardboard gravestones and chanting “Vote! Vote! Vote!” Though the commission designated meeting time for public comments, protesters interrupted the session to ask commissioners to vote to give the church access to the property so it could begin a study of the cemetery. They also asked that the commission vote in favor of the cemetery’s taking ‘precedence’ over plans for future development.
The commission repeatedly said it was unable to vote on the issue because it is currently a defendant in a related lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court by residents who argue that they would be harmed by the Westbard development plan.
“We came here because we need the commission to vote, we actually want you to vote,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, chair of Macedonia’s social justice ministry.
“There will be no vote on this issue while it is in litigation,” responded Jackie Simon, chair of the housing commission.
In the spring and summer, the housing commission, Macedonia Baptist Church, the county and other involved parties took part in county-sponsored mediation regarding the Westbard property. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), had said in March that mediation was necessary "to assist those who believe their ancestors were buried on this site."
But negotiations crumbled last month after mediators said the parties could not decide on a date for their third session.
Church members argued that mediators unilaterally cancelled the sessions despite the fact that all participants had signed up for one or more offered dates.
“The mediator decided to call off the mediation without asking anyone,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
The commission’s executive director, Stacy Spann, declined to participate in a third mediation, concerned that issues raised in the first two sessions were not kept confidential and sensitive information ended up in the lawsuit pending in circuit court, according to county officials.
Issues “alleged in the complaint were very close to what we had discussed in the mediation,” said Ramona Bell-Pearson, assistant chief administrative officer in the County Executive’s Office. “The HOC director became very concerned.”
An attorney from the housing commission would continue to take part in the mediation, said Shauna Sorrells, director of legislative and public affairs for the commission.
But church members said they would not participate in a third session unless Spann returned to the table, Bell-Pearson said. Spann agreed to rejoin negotiations at the end of August, according to Sorrells. Yet on Sept. 20, mediators sent an email cancelling future sessions.
“We have offered numerous dates and times and sent out two polls, but have not been able to come up with a date and time that works for all the key parties to this dispute,” the email read.
Christopher Page, executive director of the mediation group, said the door is still open for parties to work towards a solution.
“In mediation, people share their feelings and their values, and sometimes their feelings and values are seen through their lens,” Page said. “We’re trying to get them to see what the other person is saying.”