WASHINGTON — The site of what is believed to be a cemetery that served members of a black community in Bethesda was granted a temporary reprieve from redevelopment Thursday.
Instead of bulldozers and construction crews, ground penetrating radar and archaeologists will be sent in to search for evidence of graves.
Montgomery County’s planning board gave conditional approval to a proposed shopping center and a mixed-use development on Westbard Avenue at its meeting Thursday and required the developer to first examine a portion of the site for the remains of the cemetery.
According to members of the 100-year-old Macedonia Baptist Church on River Road, a small parking area that’s part of the development plan once served as the church’s cemetery and was paved over in the 1950s.
“There is no single shred of evidence that the bodies were ever exhumed,” said Segun Adebayo, the church’s pastor. He called the grounds a hallowed place and urged development plans to be put on hold.
Members of the church also sought to encourage the developers, Equity One, to return the land to the church or county and allow a museum to be placed there that would tell the story of African-Americans living in Montgomery County over the last century.
Developers urged the county to not delay its plans for the 1.8 million-square-foot project, but agreed to hire an archaeological firm to examine the area for human remains where the cemetery was thought to be.
“We’re going to do the assessment. We’re going to take it where it leads and we are not going to touch it until that has been completed,” said Barbara Sears, an attorney for Equity One.
Once ground-penetrating radar is brought in and the property is examined, the area where the cemetery is believed to sit will be off-limits in the planning process. The developers have two months to examine the property and bring the results back to the board.
If no remains are found, the developer will be allowed to move forward and submit its preliminary plan for building the mix of residential and retail buildings along Westbard Avenue near Ridgefield Road.
Residents also raised other concerns about the project, including the loss of small businesses in the area, the additional traffic and changes to Westbard Avenue to accommodate the development.