Old cemeteries and burial grounds that may lay in the path of new development would receive better protection under legislation introduced Tuesday by a trio of Montgomery County Council members.
The county has a list of more than 250 burial sites established by churches, families, and enslaved and free black communities, some dating back to the early 18th century. But in many cases the boundaries are not exact, and the information is fragmentary.
The measure requires that when land earmarked for new construction includes a burial site listed in county records, the developer must “use best historical and archaeological practices” to establish the exact location. Projects would not be approved without plans in place to protect those sites during construction and maintain them going forward.
“We in Montgomery County owe it to our many historic founders and historic residents to pay them the respects they deserve,” said Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), who co-sponsored the bill with Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) and Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). Officials said Howard and Prince George’s counties have similar laws.
Planning officials say the presence of cemeteries on land to be developed is now relatively rare. The bill strengthens provisions aimed at preventing what appears to have happened in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood during the 1960s, when an early-20th-century African American cemetery probably was disturbed and paved over during construction of an apartment high-rise.
A proposal to redevelop that area is now at the center of a bitter dispute pitting nearby Macedonia Baptist Church against the property owner, Regency Centers, and the county. Church members want to see a museum on the site commemorating the black community that existed along River Road until the mid-20th century. The matter is in mediation.
Another bill introduced at Tuesday’s council meeting would bar circuses with performing animals from coming to the county. The measure, sponsored by Rice and Leventhal, originated with the closing this spring of Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, long under fire from animal rights groups for its treatment of animals.
Rice and Leventhal said some constituents, including animal rights advocates, wanted to keep other, smaller circuses out of the county. Rice conceded that it was not a major issue. Most smaller circuses that visit Montgomery perform at the state fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, outside the county’s jurisdiction.
“There a lot of people who came to me and said, ‘I don't see this as a problem,’ ” Rice said. “I don’t want it to become one.”
The council also received a final accounting Tuesday of what the county spent on its lawsuit against the designer and builders of the Silver Spring Transit Center. The bus and train hub was plagued by cracked concrete and other deficiencies before it opened in September 2015, five years late and $50 million over budget.
The lawsuit cost $12.8 million, most of which went to outside counsel retained by the county. The county settled the case last month for $25 million. The litigation costs and a $3 million settlement paid by the county to general contractor Foulger-Pratt leave a little more than $9 million for county coffers.