Over Bend's Dead Bodies | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Over Bend's Dead Bodies

Out-of-state developer aims to build on Bend's only cemetery complex

click to enlarge Over Bend's Dead Bodies
Courtesy Deschutes County
The boundary lines of Greenwood Cemetery subject to the proposed zone change to medium density residential.

A developer is looking to Greenwood Cemetery, a 125-year-old graveyard, as prime grounds for new construction. Oregon Care Group LLC, a Washington-based company, purchased the Greenwood Cemetery along with seven other central Oregon properties in 2020 for $5.5 million. In October, the outfit filed a preliminary application to change the zoning of the Greenwood Cemetery from public facilities to RM (medium density residential). While the owners told the surrounding neighborhood that the proposed zone-change was purely clerical in nature, it also staked out the property for a partition last December. In early January, the City of Bend issued a stop work order to the company for clear-cutting more than 70 trees without the City's authorization. Now that the City has indicated it will unilaterally update its code, the owner has flip-flopped its position, stating it will continue to seek the zone change to allow for development of 50% of the property.

Greenwood Cemetery

Greenwood Cemetery has operated since the early 1900s, originally by Charles P. Niswonger, and was dedicated in perpetuity for the exclusive use as a cemetery in 1925. The burial ground includes many historically significant Bend family names, war veteran graves and even a CIA agent. It is the only place that allows gunshots within city limits, to honor and salute a war veteran being laid to rest. Not only is it Bend's only graveyard within city limits, it is a sprawling greenspace. This cemetery complex is comparable to an arboretum, laced with walking paths that attract dog walkers, birders, deer and their fawns, children learning to ride bikes safely away from cars, and the occasional sulking black lipsticked goth girl shielding her eyes from the brightness of the sun. Classes of students from Bend High regularly walk to and around the cemetery during school, and others use the cemetery to connect to the footpath and tunnel under Greenwood to get to Pilot Butte. It's one of the largest privately held greenspaces in central Bend.

click to enlarge Over Bend's Dead Bodies
Amanda Osteen
Surveyed partition markers are staked, with a gravestone seen far right on the potential development side.

The zone change

Oregon Care Group filed its pre-application for a zone change in October of last year. The proposed zone change would allow the building of 21.7 housing units per acre — a stark change from the neighborhood that it abuts, which consists primarily of single level, single- family homes. On Dec. 14 during a public comment period for the zone change, the owner's attorney, Adam Smith of Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt, argued that the RM zoning sought was a natural transition to the complexes on the opposite side of Pilot Butte State Park.

Smith also said that the real purpose of the zone change was to ensure that his client could continue operation of the property as a cemetery, which was not expressly listed as a permitted use under the City's Development Code. His client would gladly support any amendment of the code that would allow for cemetery uses in the Public Facilities Zone, he said, adding that an amendment of the code would be far more difficult than his client's application for the zone change.

Now, the City has indicated that it will update its code to include cemeteries as uses permitted in the Public Facilities Zone. Smith also updated his client's position, stating, "...we are working on modifying our application so that it only seeks to amend the zoning on the vacant portion of the property."

At the same meeting in December, Oregon Care Group's attorney stated, "There may be future development of the vacant part of the parcel, but there are no plans for development at this time."

click to enlarge Over Bend's Dead Bodies
Amanda Osteen
A tombstone from the cemetery.

Two weeks later, the City issued a stop work order and violation notices to Oregon Care Group, Sun Country Engineering and individuals at Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt for violating the City's tree preservation performance standards. Oregon Care Group had contracted for a portion of the cemetery to be clear cut, with the specific instruction that all stumps be left three feet high so they could be extracted by excavator. In numerous communications with the City, Smith insisted that his client was merely attempting to remove diseased and unhealthy trees from the property. Emails obtained via public records request indicate that when City staff questioned the contractor, he stated, "he was directed to clear cut the property," and only left certain trees standing on his own accord because he thought that Oregon Care Group's request was "a little excessive."

Oregon Care Group contracted for its lot clearing nine months prior to holding its meeting with the surrounding neighborhood, informing them that it had no intention of developing the property.

The property owner also staked out a partition of the property, a portion separating about 8 acres of the property closest to the neighborhood. In 2021, Oregon Care Group received permission from the Deschutes County Commission to move the unmarked graves of the former impoverished of Bend, who were buried in this area. At the time, Oregon Care Group stated that the justification for the removal of such interred bodies was because, "inconsiderate people drive over the graves, leave trash, including hypodermic needles, and otherwise desecrate the graves." This is now the portion of the property that it seeks to convert to medium density residential zoning.

A group of individuals from the surrounding Larkspur and Orchard District Neighborhoods have banded together to scrutinize Oregon Care Group's proposed development of Greenwood Cemetery.

click to enlarge Over Bend's Dead Bodies
Amanda Osteen
A sign posted on of the cemetery trees.

"This is a space that should not be developed into apartments," neighborhood resident Tom Scott explained. "First and foremost, it's a graveyard. I can't look out my window for 5 minutes without seeing people accessing the graveyard. Oregon Care Group is making the claim that rezoning this property will provide a smoother transition between single family housing and public facilities. To me that doesn't ring true. We already have a graveyard providing that transition. Oregon Care Group's lawyers are essentially saying that potential apartments abutting a graveyard is a better transition," Scott added.

"Oregon Care Group's lawyers stated that there is no way to add additional automobile access into the Greenwood Cemetery, which would pass all that traffic to Hawthorne and Franklin Avenues."

The City of Bend has yet to issue a decision on the rezoning of the cemetery.

Editor's note: Representatives for the property owners did not respond to our request for comment by our print deadline, but Adam Smith offered the following statement Feb. 29:

"Most importantly, we want to share that we are currently working on substantial revisions to the application in response to public comments. We will share those revisions once the application is finalized. Additionally, we want to reiterate our main reasons for submitting the zone change application:

"1) The property’s current Public Facilities Zoning is not ideal because the property is not publicly owned. The Public Facilities Zone’s stated purpose is to “provide area for buildings and facilities that are owned and operated by federal, state, or local governments, public utilities, special districts or nonprofit organizations,”;

"2) The applicant is interested in correcting the zoning on site in order to explore the potential to develop the vacant portion of the property in the future. However, no decisions have been made regarding developing that vacant property. Any future development occurring on the vacant property will need to be approved by the City. The applicant has absolutely no intention to ever re-develop the existing Greenwood Cemetery or to propose a project on the vacant property that impacts the Greenwood Cemetery.

"To reiterate the third point above, the proposed zone change is not anticipated to have any negative impact on the Greenwood Cemetery. The applicant has every intention of continuing to operate the Greenwood Cemetery in a manner that respects and dignifies the interred individuals, and that likewise provides a peaceful place for family and friends to visit their loved ones. The applicant’s primary purpose and business model is continuing to operate the Greenwood Cemetery, and any potential development that negatively impacts the Greenwood Cemetery will not be pursued. Stated simply, the applicant’s interest are aligned with those members of the community who wish to preserve the Greenwood Cemetery.

"Lastly, the applicant is aware of the recent news reports concerning trees being cut down on the property. Only trees that were dead, diseased, or threatening the health of other trees were cut down as part of the routine maintenance of what was otherwise an overgrown portion of the vacant property. No portion of the vacant property was “clear cut,” nor is it the applicant’s intent to “clear cut” the property in the future. After conducting a further investigation including visiting the site, meeting with the applicant’s arborist, and discussing the situation with the applicant’s consultant team, City staff provide us direction on how to move forward with the tree project if we elect to do so in the future."

—Amanda Osteen is a resident in the area surrounding the Greenwood Cemetery.

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