Bethesda Apartments and Black Cemetery lawsuit debated in court

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The stakes are high for the impending sale of Bethesda’s Westwood Tower Apartments from the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission to a Bethesda-based investment management firm – a net gain of $ 30 million with a closing date in just a bit. more than a week.

That’s the argument made by the buyer, Charger Ventures LLC, and the HOC in court on Monday, in a lawsuit against HOC by the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, which is trying to stop the sale.

Coalition members rallied against the development of the Westwood site, arguing that it should be commemorated at the graves there.

At around 9:15 p.m. on Monday, witness testimony ended, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith asked the attorneys handling the case to submit final written statements to the court before the court closed. offices Friday.

Over the past five years, the Graveyard Advocacy Group has said hundreds of graves are buried under the Westwood Towers parking lot of the Moses Macedonian African Cemetery.

The cemetery, where African-American slaves and their descendants are buried, was paved in the 1960s to create parking and driveways for the apartments.

In July, the HOC approved a letter of intent to sell the property for $ 51 million to Charger Ventures. The sale was due to be finalized earlier this month.

The Cemeteries Coalition then filed a lawsuit in August, arguing that HOC had failed to follow a state law that requires anyone selling cemetery property for other purposes to seek a court judgment.

A court can order that the proceeds of the sale be used to pay for expenses related to the removal or reburial of the remains, or the purchase of burial grounds elsewhere, in accordance with the law.

Montgomery County officials have researched the history of the cemetery, but have never determined for sure that the graves are still there.

In its lawsuit, the coalition cited a 2017 report from the Ottery Group, an archaeological subcontracting company. This report indicates that the burials are probably intact and recommends that no further soil disturbance take place at the site.

Smith issued a temporary restraining order on September 1, temporarily blocking the sale of the property.

On Monday, the two sides clashed in a controversial 11 a.m. hearing marked by frequent objections from lawyers for each side.

In the first half of the hearing, Nathan Adler, an attorney representing Charger Ventures, argued that his client had the right to intervene in the case because he is an interested party, although he is not respondent.

Adler told Smith the expected closing date for the sale is October 8. With a potential gain of $ 30 million for the HOC, the failure of the sale means that Charger Ventures “will suffer significant financial damage,” Adler said in court.

“Demonstrable and immediate harm will result,” he said.

Smith denied Charger Ventures’ request to intervene.

In the afternoon, lawyers for the Cemeteries Coalition called witnesses to testify, including Harvey Matthews – a member of the Macedonian Baptist Church who grew up in the black community near River Road in Bethesda in the years 40 and 50.

“Macedonia was the hub of the River Road community. It still is, ”he said of the church.

Matthews remembered walking to school five days a week on a gravel path through the cemetery until 1959, when he was about 15 years old. At the top of the graves were large crosses that his uncle and cousin, who were masons, had worked on, he said. .

Matthews marked on maps where the cemetery was located before Westwood was built in the late 1960s, and after.

During construction, he said, he worked at a gas station “a stone’s throw” from the construction site. When a whistle sounded, work would stop and crews would place the remains of the cemetery in burlap bags that would be dumped at Seneca Creek, he said.

“Descendants [who have died] cannot speak for themselves… but those who live can speak for them, ”he said.

Geneva Nannette Hunter, whose great-great-aunt Cora Botts was buried in the cemetery in 1935, said she was angry that she hadn’t had a chance to give HOC her opinion on the sale of the property. If the site is not preserved, she will be “even angrier”, she said.

Lyle Torp, chief executive of the Ottery Group, said his employees used a combination of death notices, land records and oral histories, among other sources. He believes it is “unlikely” that all of the bodies were removed during the construction of Westwood.

Segun Adebayo, the pastor of the Macedonian Baptist Church, told lawyers for each party that at a meeting in July HOC chairman Roy Priest told members of the cemetery coalition that he was “still determined” to commemorate the site. Adebayo said he requested a subsequent meeting with Priest, but did not get a response.

When Frederick Douglas, a lawyer representing HOC, asked the agency’s acting executive director, Kayrine Brown, if Charger Ventures had been made aware of the history of the cemetery prior to the sale, she said yes. Brown said Charger had agreed to work with the Cemetery Coalition for three years to commemorate the site.

The agreement specifically states that Charger Ventures must “work in good faith” with the coalition once the agreement is concluded.

Brown said of the $ 51 million generated by the agreement with Charger Ventures, about $ 30 million would go to HOC and the rest would be used to fund debt on the property.

Brown declined to speak with a Bethesda Beat reporter after the hearing.

Steven Lieberman, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs, said in an interview that Smith must rule on both a motion to dismiss brought by the HOC lawyer and the plaintiff’s injunction motion.

Lieberman said he felt positive about Monday’s debates.

“I think the judge understood very well that there is no real problem. There are organizations under parcel 175, and HOC has not complied with its statutory obligations, ”he said.

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

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