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15-Year Effort to Document County Cemeteries Uncovers 50 New Sites

County Planning Board to review new guidelines to preserve burial grounds
By Caitlynn Peetz  |  Bethesda Magazine | Published February 13, 2019

A first-of-its-kind search for Montgomery County cemeteries uncovered more than 50 previously undocumented burial grounds, and county planners have new guidelines to preserve them.

The draft guidelines, set for review by the county Planning Board next week, outline requirements for retaining existing cemeteries in their original location unless approved for relocation by the Planning Board.

The guidelines come after a 15-year volunteer effort to identify burial sites.

“Cemeteries are significant and important cultural resources in Montgomery County,” the report says. “Preservation of these unique archaeological resources will further protect the cultural heritage of Montgomery County.”

Between 2004 and 2010, volunteers began researching and documenting county cemeteries, and in 2018, Montgomery Preservation Inc., a nonprofit historic preservation organization, took over the effort, bringing more manpower.

Dozens of volunteers visited all of the 266 cemeteries identified during earlier surveys and conducted research to identify more sites, bringing the total to 322 sites. The volunteers took photographs, recorded GPS coordinates and filled out description forms for each location.

Guidelines will require developers to document existing cemetery elements on property proposed for development, such as walls, gates, tombstones, and that the cemetery site be shown in project proposals.

Before projects are approved, developers will have to develop a long-term maintenance plan for the burial site that includes mowing, landscaping, cleaning and repair practices.

Burial sites can be moved under rare circumstances.

“Preservation in place is the preferred treatment for burial sites,” the report says.

To assist with preservation of the county’s 322 burial grounds, the county developed an interactive online map, with locations and historical information. Some sites are well-documented or clearly visible from the surface, while others are known through oral or archival history, but the remains have been removed or the exact location is unknown. Sites inventoried are split into two categories: known sites, confirmed through historical research; and approximate sites, with unknown exact sizes or conditions.

Information will be updated as it becomes available.

The County Council in 2017 passed legislation requiring the Planning Department develop the cemetery guidelines in response to debates about development on River Road in Bethesda, county planners said. Project plans include 132,000 square feet of retail and about 515 residences near a cemetery. There is no development proposed for the parking lot under which a suspected cemetery, including the graves of Macedonia Baptist Church ancestors, rests, but protestors have opposed nearby development for several years and demand a memorial for the cemetery.

“With that was a lot of public interest in making sure cemeteries are accounted for and some provisions are in place to protect them,” said Brian Crane, the county Planning Department staff member who led the effort to document the burial grounds and create the draft preservation guidelines.

The guidelines are expected to be formally adopted this summer after refinement and community outreach events.

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