House bill could allow city access to abandoned cemeteries

Greenwood Memorial Park in 2018
Greenwood Memorial Park in 2018 Chronicle file photo

Those with relatives buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in Centralia, as well as people hoping to be buried alongside loved ones already interred there, may soon regain their right to rest in peace.

House Bill 1801 would allow the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to grant a certificate of authority to state and local governments for the purpose of maintaining abandoned, privately owned cemeteries such as Greenwood.

The bill, co-sponsored by state Reps. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, sailed through the house on March 5 by a 98-0 vote and is now under review by the Senate Local Government Committee. It would not give ownership of the land to a petitioning body of government, but rather allow it or a nonprofit organizations to step in where landowners have fallen back.

“The current authority is given to issue a certificate to a nonprofit to be able to go in and maintain the grounds,” Orcutt said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any of those coming forward, so we want the city or county to be able to do it.”

Greenwood Memorial Park has been in disrepair for close to a decade, with reports of strangers buried in family plots and gravesites destroyed by motor vehicles rampant among stakeholders. Lewis County records show SBC Investments Partners LLC as having owned the parcel since 2015.

Previous reporting by The Chronicle noted burial plots overgrown with weeds and thorns, above-ground cement enclosures smashed open, and debris littering the grass where it still grows. The state legislature allocated $250,000 in the most recent capital budget for Centralia to buy the cemetery outright, provided it establish a cemetery district.

Hill told the state House Committee on State Government & Tribal Relations last month that the city is willing to take the lead on fixing the damage and facilitating public access, should it be given the authority to do so. Orcutt inserted an amendment to the original bill text adding an emergency clause for the bill to take effect immediately after it is signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“I think that once we started working on Greenwood, credit to (Orcutt), he found out about a lot more,” DeBolt said. “We heard about four or five more statewide that are in a similar situation right now.”

DeBolt said he and Orcutt are working to insert funding into the upcoming capital budget for local governments and nonprofits to draw from when taking over maintenance of an abandoned cemetery. Orcutt estimates there are more than 100 privately owned cemeteries in the state.

The hope is that Gov. Inslee will sign the bill with enough time for Centralia workers to complete a good amount of cleanup before Memorial Day.

“I’m hoping this addresses the issue well enough that someone will come forward and take care of it if it happens somewhere else,” Orcutt said. “We’re trying very hard not to trample on private property rights. But when someone opens their property to the public, there has to be some responsibility to maintain the grounds. We want to make sure people whose loved ones are buried there are respected.”