Cemetery Faces New Challenges as SHA Declares Expansion Will Have “No Adverse Effect” on Property

In summer 2018 the Maryland State Highway Administration held a series of public workshops on the newly proposed $11 billion Beltway expansion plan. The maps they shared at those workshops did not even mark the site of the Moses Hall & Cemetery property in Cabin John. 

However, in the intervening years, the SHA worked closely with descendants of the cemetery, the Friends of Moses Hall, the Cabin John Citizens Association, county officials, historic preservation groups, and others to do right by the cemetery. They conducted an archeological survey, cleared invasive bamboo and, most recently, conducted an expensive ground-penetrating radar survey of part of the property to look for gravesites. 

The results were stunning: more than 189 probable burials and 188 possible graves within the surveyed portion of the cemetery itself and, shockingly, evidence of 34 likely gravesites in the existing Beltway right-of-way. 

Now it appears the SHA is reverting back to its original stance and looking for ways to negate the cemetery. 

At a Jan. 4 virtual meeting with groups engaged in protecting the cemetery, the SHA announced that it has worked to ensure that the Beltway expansion would avoid the cemetery; therefore, they are reversing the assessment made earlier in the Section 106 process and finding the expansion would have “no adverse effect” on the property. With this determination, the SHA is no longer obligated to provide assistance or otherwise mitigate impacts to the property. Community groups strongly disagree with this “no-adverse-effect” finding. 

Furthermore, Steve Archer, the SHA official presiding over the meeting, announced that the SHA is not responsible for any detrimental impacts to the cemetery and the Gibson Grove community caused by the original Beltway construction, since it occurred before the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) in 1970 and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966. 

The CJCA, Friends of Moses Hall, Montgomery Planning, State Delegate Sara Love, and others have long raised the issue of environmental justice going back to the construction of the Beltway in the early 1960s. In a November letter to the SHA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation summarized the issue forcefully: 

“The most important part of the cumulative impact analysis will be the past impacts – the damage and destruction directly and indirectly inflicted on this historic property, as well as on the Gibson Grove AME Zion Church and the wider Black community of Cabin John, by the earlier highway construction.” 

The Trust argued that the SHA should “ensure that robust mitigation is developed commensurate with the magnitude of these adverse cumulative impacts.” 

The SHA had appeared to agree. In a September 2021 article in The Washington Post, Julie M. Schablitsky, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s chief archeologist is quoted as saying, “We own the faults of the Maryland Roads Commission impacting this community 60 years ago… It’s our responsibility now to repair that damage and come in and do the right thing.” 

Assuming the Maryland Historical Trust concurs with SHA’s finding of “no adverse effect” to the historic property, the SHA is not required to address potential impacts through mitigation or to commit to any additional archeological investigations of the property prior to the Record of Decision (ROD) at the end of the NEPA process, which is expected later in 2022. 

The CJCA, Friends of Moses Hall, and others are calling on the SHA to do additional GPR survey work for gravesites, especially in more of the Beltway right- of-way and on the cemetery side of the fence line. The state has acknowledged it does not know if additional graves will be found within the areas that will be impacted by Beltway construction; however, SHA says there will be no further investigation until they are closer to final design and construction. 

By delaying further archeological investigation, the Friends of Moses Hall and others argue, avoidance options should gravesites be found will be more limited and could result in the relocation of graves, which many descendants oppose. 

During the virtual meeting, the SHA did reiterate a few commitments it made earlier. 

Most importantly, the SHA said it would transfer the Beltway right-of-way land where the GPR found likely gravesites to the cemetery. The Federal Highway Administration suggested that SHA could delay the land transfer until after the ROD. Ultimately, both highway agencies agree to conclude the Section 106 process with a “no- adverse-effect” finding for the cemetery, since the expansion will not physically encroach on the current boundary of the cemetery property. 

As part of the noise abatement wall that will be constructed, the SHA said it will construct a “context-sensitive” design of the noise barrier facing the cemetery. It could incorporate displays helping to tell the history of the Gibson Grove community and the important role the Morningstar fraternal order played in the community from the late 1800s into the 1950s. 

SHA also committed to build a sidewalk between Gibson Grove Church and the cemetery. Community groups see these measures as totally inadequate for environmental justice. Absent any commitment to the restoration of the cemetery site, the property will not be safe to receive visitors for the foreseeable future.

By Susan Shipp, CJCA President 

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