East Oakland Crematorium campaign

March 20, 2014
By Shana Lazerow, Staff Attorney

I feel like everybody ought to ask themselves that question.  Is one body ok?  Five?  Ten?  What if it’s ten bodies every day of the year?  Would the idea that your children are breathing in the dead bother you?  Would you want to know what experts have found about what the different pollutants might do to your child?  What about your home values – do you think you could sell your house for the same amount if there were ten bodies arriving by hearse and being incinerated every day, even Christmas Day?

It’s a strange thing to think about, and stranger to know that the people of East Oakland, who are mostly low-income people of color, were never asked.  Especially strange in this day and age when people fight over adding an extra room on a house (in Berkeley you even need six month permit process, with public notice and hearing, for a child’s playstructure in the backyard!).

Oakland land use law has always said that human crematoriums raise special questions that the community should have the chance to answer.  Oakland even has a category for businesses that deal with end of life services: Extensive Impact Civic Activities.  These activities can happen anywhere in Oakland, but only if the whole community is informed beforehand, and only if the city imposes conditions on the operation so that no one is breathing too much pollution or seeing too great an increase in hearse traffic or decrease in property value.  From the dawn of Oakland’s zoning regulations until 2011, Oakland treated end of life services as a special land use.

In 2011, an Oakland permit writer was faced with a proposal for the largest crematorium on the West Coast, incinerating up to 3,600 human bodies each year.  The crematorium developer, Stewart Industries, thought it would be a light manufacturing activity.  The permit writer wasn’t sure, so he asked his boss to take a look.  Higher up the chain, someone called it general manufacturing.  In Oakland, any business that makes something can be called general manufacturing when it doesn’t fit in any other definition.  There are three problems with calling a mega-crematorium “general manufacturing”:

  1. crematoriums already fit a definition (Extensive Impact Civic Activity);
  2. this is not a business that makes something; and
  3. general manufacturing is allowed without notice or conditions in the parts of town that are low-income communities of color; only those communities could be forced to host a human crematorium. Conversely, places that might welcome small crematoriums to serve their community needs would not be able to host them, if they are zoned for residential or commercial uses only.

Stewart was issued an initial permit to build in East Oakland.  Nobody in East Oakland was notified.  Nobody came to the Planning Commission or City Council until months after that initial permit, when someone found out, and finally passed the word along.  People, businesses, churches, and schools started speaking up at City Council and Planning Commission meetings, sending letters demanding the City do the right thing and go through a full permitting process, not the rubber stamp Stewart had gotten from an unelected bureaucrat.

Community spoke eloquently and often.  We (Communities for a Better Environment) decided the City needed a chance to do the right thing, so we filed a request for determination, explaining to the City that crematoriums are, and since Oakland zoning began always have been, Extensive Impact Civic Activities.  The City did not do the right thing.  It declared that crematoriums are general manufacturing.

What happens now?  In December CBE sued.  I hope and trust that the City will settle the case so the community has a chance to learn what Stewart and any other crematorium would do if it started operating in East Oakland.  Some mistakes are hard to fix, but this is one mistake the City can and must fix.  If the City does not settle, Alameda Superior Court will be looking at the law, deciding who is right: the community that deserves information but never got notice, or the crematorium that manufactures nothing.