Statement from the Montgomery County Planning Department Director Gwen Wright Regarding the Process for Addressing a Possible Historic African-American Cemetery in Westbard

February 9, 2017

The Montgomery County Planning Department shares community concerns about the possible presence of a historic African-American cemetery in Westbard.  We have approached this issue with utmost sensitivity to the possible presence of burial sites and will continue to do so.

During work on the Westbard Sector Plan, the history of the River Road African-American community was researched extensively and highlighted in the planning document. Through studying historic documents, the Planning Department identified the possible presence of a burial site and spoke with the minister of the Macedonia Baptist Church about it. 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. We also briefed the Planning Board about this issue at a public worksession and included language in the Westbard Sector Plan about it. All of this work was done at the initiative of the Planning Department because we understand the importance of the African-American history of this community.

After the approval of the plan, we have worked diligently to assure that this issue is incorporated into the review of a regulatory application for the site owned by Equity One. For the past several months, the Planning Department has worked to get needed archaeological investigation done to ascertain whether there is evidence of burial sites.  I have personally affirmed at each of the community meetings that I have attended on the Equity One regulatory case that this issue will not be overlooked or ignored during the review process. Here are the steps we have taken:

  • We asked Equity One to undertake appropriate archaeological investigation at this very earliest step in the regulatory process. They agreed to do this, contacted an experienced cultural resource management firm to do the work, and presented a scope they had received for this work on December 6th.
  • We have undertaken an extensive and transparent dialogue with the entire Westbard community on all aspects of the Equity One regulatory application. Through this process of community meetings, the Macedonia Baptist Church has been engaged in discussing how to undertake the needed archaeological investigations.
  • The archaeological work has not yet been done but is pending. Equity One had wanted to proceed with the work under the bid they received on December 6th. However, the Planning Department has been trying to address any and all concerns of the Macedonia Baptist Church in the process and fully involve them in the archaeological investigation.
  • The church representatives did not want Equity One to proceed with the work outlined in the December 6th bid and asked them to get a bid from a different cultural resource management firm. Although the first firm was fully qualified and experienced, the Planning Department asked Equity One to get a bid from the firm suggested by the church. That bid was received on January 23rd.
  • The Macedonia Baptist Church asked two well-respected academics – Dr. Rachel Watkins and Dr. Michael Blakey – to become involved in the process. The Planning Department agreed to enter into a contract with Drs. Watkins and Blakey to act as a Peer Review Committee for the archaeological investigation – being fully engaged with the firm doing the investigation to assure that the work is thorough and accurate.
  • Work outlined in the January 23rd proposal has been delayed in an effort to get Drs. Watkins and Blakey under contract. Although the Planning Department has attempted to get the necessary information from Drs. Watkins and Blakey to enter into this agreement for their peer review services – including sending them a proposal last Friday – we have not received a response from them.

All of the work described above has been in the context of a regulatory application filed by Equity One. This application is for a sketch plan for their Westbard property – a large tract with the possible cemetery being only a small fraction of the area.  A sketch plan is an early stage, highly conceptual regulatory application required for developments of a certain scale.  A sketch plan does not give a property owner any development entitlements.  Following sketch plan approval, and before commencing with any development on its site, Equity One must also obtain preliminary plan and plat approval – also referred as subdivision approval – and site plan approval.  This process will take a year or more.

Review of the sketch plan regulatory application has been delayed three times in order to resolve issues on the archaeological investigation of the possible cemetery site and the review is now well beyond the 90-day review period established by County law. The Planning Board is currently scheduled to consider Equity One’s sketch plan in a public hearing on February 23, 2017.

The area that includes the possible cemetery is included in the sketch plan application; however, the proposals for changes/construction in the area of the possible cemetery are not being evaluated in detail in the sketch plan. The staff report for this regulatory case will include conditions that require Equity One to submit the archaeological study prior to approval of the preliminary plan and phase the timing and approval of any development on this portion of property once the study is complete to address pertinent recommendations. The conditions further state that a sketch plan amendment, consistent with the results of the study and the preliminary plan will be required to analyze the details of any new improvements, dedications or protections on this part of the property.

Review and action on Equity One’s sketch plan will in no way limit the Planning Board’s ability to address concerns related to the presence of a cemetery during the next stages of review.

During this entire process, the Planning Department has reaffirmed that not only will all Maryland laws that govern burial sites and archaeological discovery of human remains be followed meticulously, but that it is also our goal 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.