PORTLAND — Elizabeth Tarasevich said last year was particularly good for tomatoes and eggplant in her section of a community garden off Brentwood Street in the Deering Center neighborhood.

But Tarasevich’s harvests and the community garden’s days may be numbered — Evergreen Cemetery is eyeing the same plot as the site for a columbarium, a wall-like structure to hold cremation urns.

City officials will take up the issue at a Health and Recreation Committee meeting today.

The city leased the land for $1 a year for five years to the Deering Center Neighborhood Association in 2009 for a community garden. But the property is actually part of city-owned Evergreen Cemetery, even though a long line of spruce trees separating it from the rest of the sprawling cemetery makes it seem like a separate parcel.

Naomi Mermin, president of the Deering Center Neighborhood Association, said the only thing growing on the parcel before the neighborhood association got involved was trouble.

“It was an eyesore and there were kids partying there and a whole host of problems,” she said.

The association’s members went in, cleaned up the land and put about $60,000 into designing the garden, improving the soil and planting fruit trees, she said. The gardening started in earnest last year.

According to officials of The Friends of Evergreen Cemetery, the neighborhood association’s use of the land highlighted the fact that the cemetery had largely ignored the property in developing a 1994 master plan. About a year ago, the cemetery organization hired a landscape architect who developed a plan for the columbarium, which would meet a growing demand at Evergreen for places to put cremation urns.

Tanya Seredin, the architect, said her plan would cost up to $2 million to construct, but selling the spots in the wall would bring in as much as $8 million.

She said the community garden is fine as a temporary use.

“It’s sort of a long-range plan that includes the community garden in the interim,” Seredin said of her proposal, which The Friends of Evergreen Cemetery has endorsed. “I don’t feel like there has to be a controversy or dispute. The property belongs to the cemetery.”

But Tarasevich, who manages the garden project for the neighborhood association, said that, in a larger sense, it’s city land and not exclusively the cemetery’s.

“They didn’t do anything with the land for 68 years” after the city took the six-acre parcel for unpaid taxes during the Great Depression. “They could do what they want to do here in another place. This is the only place we have.”

Evergreen Cemetery is 239 acres, of which about 110 acres are currently used for burial space.

Cynthia Loebenstein, president of The Friends of Evergreen, said that attitude is what the cemetery organization has sought to avoid. She said the 1994 master plan warned against temporary uses of cemetery land for fear of creating a sense of ownership of the property by others.

“You need to be careful about creating a ‘temporary’ garden,” she said.

Loebenstein declined to speculate how long it might be before the cemetery organization decides to go ahead with its plans for the property if the city adopts the Seredin plan. She noted, however, that the five-year lease didn’t include any language about renewal.

That would upset the neighborhood group’s plans for the small orchard next to the garden.

Tarasevich said the group has planted apple trees and blueberry bushes, but “it will at least be five to seven years” before they can expect a substantial harvest. 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 799-8882 or at:

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