Equity One to Contract Ground Radar Studies for Cemetery Site

Members of Macedonia Baptist Church plan to protest the Westbard redevelopment Sunday because they believe it encroaches on an African-American cemetery. | Mike Walsh

The company that is pushing a redevelopment plan for the Westbard neighborhood of Bethesda said it plans to pursue a contract for Earth-penetrating radar studies of an area believed to be the site of a former African-American cemetery.

Because of the lack of action on the studies, the Macedonia Baptist Church plans a protest Sunday. Members of the church believe an existing Housing Opportunities Commission building and its parking lot cover gravesites of families of freed slaves that settled in the River Road area.

Members of the church believe the redevelopment further encroaches on the cemetery. Church members received assurances that official proceedings would be held up until an archaeological team could perform the radar studies, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said Wednesday.

None of that has occurred, she said. A Montgomery County Planning Board meeting scheduled for Feb. 23 is “a rush to approve the Equity One plan,” Coleman-Adebayo said. The board will consider Equity One’s sketch plan at the meeting.

A protest is expected to start at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, starting at the church at 5119 River Road, Bethesda.

Bill Brown, executive vice president of development for Equity One, said he has been meeting with the church since early December. He said Equity One is planning to contract with another company to conduct the ground radar studies.

Brown said he was meeting with the county on Wednesday when the church issued a press release about the protest.

“We talked about it. I’m waiting for direction from the county,” Brown said.

On Thursday, county Planning Director Gwen Wright released a statement saying the Planning Board’s review of Equity One’s sketch plan has been delayed three times to resolve issues on the archaeological investigation of the possible cemetery site.

She said the review is now well beyond the 90-day review period established by County law.

“While research indicates that there were graves at the site at some point in the past, further investigation is needed to determine whether any graves are still present,” Wright’s statement says.

She said Maryland laws that govern burial sites and archaeological discovery of human remains be followed meticulously. She also said planners intend to commemorate the history of the cemetery and the River Road African-American community throughout any park created in the Willet Branch area.

“We will continue to work diligently and transparently to find a solution that is legal, that is viable, and that honors the history of the River Road African-American community,” she said.

David Kathan, who has researched the cemetery for the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, said the cemetery has little in the way of documentation. From death notices, one could infer that members of the community are buried there, he said.

Kathan noted a post on Robert Dyer’s blog, citing unnamed eyewitnesses who said the cemetery was desecrated by construction workers building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. One eyewitness said construction needed to stop 12 times as workmen encountered 12 graves, then someone gave the order to relocate an unknown number of remains illegally to land adjacent to the cemetery plot.

“Our sense is that there’s at least a reasonable expectation that there are remains still on the site,” Kathan said.

Previous posts:

Berliner Asks Planning Board to Ensure Westbard Action Doesn’t Prejudice Cemetery

Douglas Tallman

About Douglas Tallman

Reporter with 35 years experience throughout Maryland. Reach me at dtallman@mymcmedia.org or via Twitter at @MCM-Doug

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