Sunburn Beach issues linger as owners sell land to state

  • Sunburn Beach in the easternmost end of Charlemont near Shelburne Falls is a popular swimming area where the North River joins the Deerfield River. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2019 11:11:51 PM

CHARLEMONT — The state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) paid $25,000 for a 4.6-acre piece of riverfront land known as “Sunburn Beach,” owned by family of the late Grace and Marshall Johnson.

The land, located off North River Road at the confluence of the Deerfield and North rivers, was owned by the Johnson family for five generations. For several decades, the family allowed the public to traverse the land to reach the riverfront, known as “Sunburn Beach,” even as it became more heavily used.

DCR said in a statement that it acquired the land last month to “help preserve and connect” protected state land, including the Catamount State Forest and the High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary. The agency added the land will remain “undeveloped” and “will be protected conservation and recreation open space available to residents and visitors.”

While the agency said it will not designate the land as a swimming area, it is considering other recreational uses for the parcel, like fishing.

Diantha Wholey, the Johnsons’ daughter, said the family sold the home (located across the street from the land adjacent to the riverfront) late last year. She said they decided to sell the adjacent riverfront parcel this year because they no longer lived in the area.

These two sales follow years of brewing concerns about the riverfront’s use. The Johnson family, neighbors and police have raised concerns over the years about traffic and litter, caused by locals and out-of-state visitors alike.

Problems came to a head last year, just before the Johnson family sold the home. In July, when the Johnson family held an estate auction and attendees struggled to find parking, police posted “no parking” signs, which have remained there ever since.

Charlemont Police Chief Jared Bellows has previously addressed issues about congestion along North River Road. He estimated that on Independence Day of 2018, more than 100 cars were parked near the river.

“We’ve had traffic problems there,” Bellows said previously. “Sometimes, it gets so congested that emergency vehicles can’t get through.”

While the “no parking” signs have remained, some neighbors say the area has retained its popularity — and accompanying inconveniences. One nearby resident, Teri Rutherford, who moved into the Johnsons’ property last year, said while she “thought she was moving to a quiet street,” she has contended with congestion, trash and noise, with the summer months only making matters worse.

Rutherford described an influx of cars parked along her street despite last year’s enforcement. While many locals are cognizant of the no parking rule, Rutherford said, she often sees cars with out-of-state plates lining her street and even parking in her driveway. After one incident where an out-of-state driver allegedly yelled at her, Rutherford called the police.

Rutherford also expressed concerns about trash left behind by users. Most days, she said she picks up the trash.

“I usually come back most mornings with anywhere from a handful to a grocery-sized shopping bag back to my house,” Rutherford said. “If it’s not the Fourth of July, it’s usually a few beer cans or some pieces of plastic.”

Noise is another issue, Rutherford said. She described being awoken most nights by people meeting by the river, talking, drinking and even building bonfires.

“I’ve woken up at least four times. They’re taking rocks out of the hillside and building fire rings,” Rutherford said. “People are coming all the time at night. Almost every night.”

To address her concerns, Rutherford plans to meet with the Selectboard in the near future, she said.

While Rutherford said she is “excited” the land has been purchased by the state, she is unsure how it will care for the property. She urged the state to solicit community comment to decide how to address the riverfront’s issues.

“Whatever plans the state has, they’re not asking for any community feedback or input,” Rutherford said. “There needs to be more communication between the state and the town. There needs to be community input about these places that have been beloved by the community.”

And while problems are clear, Rutherford admitted solutions are more elusive.

“How do you keep a public place public without inviting hoards of people in?” Rutherford said. “I don’t know the answer.”

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