Members of an African American church in Bethesda are escalating their efforts to halt major construction in the Westbard neighborhood, delivering a petition with about 130 signatures on Thursday to the Montgomery County Planning Board.
The members of Macedonia Baptist Church contend that the mixed-use project proposed by New York-based Equity One will further desecrate a site they believe was an African American cemetery in the first half of the 20th century.
The land, made into a parking lot in the 1960s, “should be isolated and protected as a sacred place,” said church social justice chair Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.
She led about a dozen protesters to the Montgomery Planning Board in Silver Spring on Thursday afternoon to present the petition, which seeks to delay a Feb. 23 hearing on the project until more is known about what may lie underground.
The action comes amid conflict between officials and the church community over how best to address cemetery questions.
Coleman-Adebayo and other church members assert that Montgomery Planning Director Gwen Wright and Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson intend to move ahead with approval of the Equity One’s proposal for the neighborhood, despite evidence suggesting that remains exist beneath a parking lot behind Westwood Tower, a 15-story apartment building on Westbard Avenue.
The board announced Wednesday that although the Equity One proposal will remain on next Thursday’s agenda, the Westwood Tower area will be excluded from review until a full study of the site is complete.
The board also invited church representatives to testify.
Wright said she asked Equity One not to begin any work on the site until her agency negotiates a contract with two anthropologists who specialize in African American culture, Rachel Watkins and Michael Blakey, to serve as independent “peer review” consultants. That negotiation is ongoing, Wright said.
“We want to honor the demands of the church in this matter,” she said.
If the presence of remains is confirmed, it will be up to the state’s attorney’s office to decide whether they are exhumed and moved, Wright said.
Equity One wants to build a town-center-style development, with civic spaces, a revitalized shopping center, apartment high rises, townhouses and moderately priced housing on 22 acres in Westbard.
The plan, approved by the Montgomery County Council in May, has drawn bitter protests from some residents of surrounding neighborhoods, who contend that it would transform the character of the community from suburban to urban.