Credit: Bethany Rodgers

Members of a Bethesda church erupted in outrage Thursday at a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting when they learned an archeological firm hired by developers has already started studying a historic African-American burial site.

Macedonia Baptist Church congregants and supporters had pushed the county to hire a pair of academics to oversee the archeological examination in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood. However, the county planning department’s contract negotiations with the two professors had fallen through, and the study had proceeded without them, a staff member explained to the board.

The news triggered immediate response from roughly 20 demonstrators, who were lined up against the room’s rear wall holding signs that read, “Respect black history,” and, “Truth in planning.”

“This is Kabuki theater!” church member Marsha Coleman-Adebayo shouted.

Coleman-Adebayo and fellow parishioners have sharply criticized the planning department for its handling of Westwood Shopping Center development plans, which encompass the area being investigated for burial shafts. The congregants, whose River Road church stands across the street from the site, wanted progress on the project to halt until the archeological analysis is complete and the location is protected and memorialized.

Instead, the board decided to approve the redevelopment plan filed by Regency Centers, formerly known as Equity One, but carved out the area under examination by the archeological firm. Board members also urged planning staff to expedite the study and the academic review process to determine whether any graves still exist at the site or were removed during past development projects.

However, Planning Director Gwen Wright said her department was unable to arrive at an agreement with the academics over the appropriate scope of work and compensation. At the board’s direction, Wright gave the green light to the developers’ archeological firm, the Ottery Group. County planner Robert Kronenberg said the study would probably be finished in June, his voice at times drowned out by demonstrators chanting, “This is not what democracy looks like!”

Speaking with reporters after Thursday’s meeting, Wright said her department had worked well with Macedonia Baptist under a former pastor and has tried to engage the community about the site.

“The bottom line is, we all care about this cemetery. We are all historians and preservationists in this department,” she said.

Friction between Macedonia Baptist and the planning department led County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council President Roger Berliner to suggest mediation. Officials are working to coordinate the talks.