2021 | Development

Company cancels apartment building purchase following lawsuit over Black cemetery; might try later

Circuit court judge granted preliminary injunction last month preventing sale

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A Bethesda-based investment management company that signed a $51 million letter of intent over the summer to buy Westwood Tower Apartments has canceled its plans.

But the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County (HOC), says the company is still interested in possibly buying the property later.

The HOC in July approved the letter of intent for the sale, which was expected to close in September.

But the sale was blocked when the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, a group advocating for the preservation of the historically Black Moses Macedonia African Cemetery, sued the HOC.

According to a court filing from Nov. 19, Charger Ventures, the buyer, withdrew its motion to intervene and has “exercised its right to terminate the purchase and sale and agreement, thus, Charger no longer has any contractual rights relating to property.”

HOC Chair Roy Priest said in a statement to Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that due to ongoing litigation, Westwood Tower Apartments, Charger Ventures and HOC “were not able to close on the transaction on the required closing date.”

“However, Charger continues to express its strong interest in resuming negotiations to purchase the property — its withdrawal was in accordance with the date set forth in the purchase and sale agreement,” he said.

When a Bethesda Beat reporter called and sent a text message to Priest with followup questions, HOC Director of Legislative & Public Affairs Christina Autin asked that the reporter submit questions in writing.

Autin wrote that Charger Ventures “may be interested in pursuing” a new purchase and sale agreement for Westwood Tower in the future.

Priest then said in another statement responding to questions from Bethesda Beat that “there is not an active purchase and sale agreement being pursued with Charger or any other company at this time.”

“Focus remains on the open litigation and its implications for the future of Westwood Tower and the agency’s ability to pursue its affordable housing mission,” he said in the statement.

Priest did not address the question of whether HOC would be willing to accept a bid from a company other than Charger Ventures.

Attorneys for HOC could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.

Representatives and attorneys for Charger Ventures also could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.

The cemetery was paved over in the 1960s during the construction of the apartments to create the parking lot and driveways.

Members of the church and relatives of those buried there have argued for several years that the graves still exist. Montgomery County officials have never said whether the graves are still there, but one archaeological study conducted by a private archeological consultant determined in 2017 that graves are still likely intact.

The cemetery coalition has advocated for memorialization of the site for five years, and sued the HOC in August on the grounds that it didn’t follow state law, which requires anyone selling a cemetery property for another purpose to first obtain a court judgment.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith granted a temporary restraining order on Sept. 1 blocking the sale.

Later in September, an 11-hour court hearing was held. On Oct. 25, Smith granted a preliminary injunction preventing the sale to Charger Ventures, ensuring that it would remain blocked.

In an emailed statement on Monday, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition said that Charger Ventures “walking away from the idea of developing land atop a cemetery is a victory for the community in Bethesda and a victory for all communities fighting to stop developers from placing their ancestors on the auction block.”

In the statement, the coalition’s attorney, Steven Lieberman of the Washington firm Rothwell Figg, said: “The Court’s injunction in this case prevented Charger Ventures from attempting to purchase Moses Cemetery. And hopefully, now the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission will abandon its illegal efforts to sell this land to another developer, in violation of Maryland law.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com