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Sonoma County exploring purchase of Guerneville’s Johnson’s Beach, listed at $3.7 million

Sonoma County is poised to take a stab at acquiring Johnson’s Beach, an iconic riverfront property in the center of Guerneville that has been serving up fresh air, water recreation and lifetimes worth of memories for more than a century.

Listed last week by owners Dan Poirier and Nick Moore for $3.7 million, the 11-acre property has reportedly drawn the interest of a number of potential buyers, in addition to the county, which already owns six public beaches on the Russian River.

But Johnson’s, with its location and long-term legacy, would be a particular coup, bringing opportunities for expanded public river access, as well as concessions and other economic benefits to local businesses, said Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the area.

“Johnson’s Beach is really the heart of Guerneville. It’s this huge, beautiful beach a stone’s throw from all the restaurants and businesses, and it’s a historic property — the legacy of Clare Harris and his family, who stewarded it for decades,” Hopkins said, referring to the family who ran the place for nearly 50 years.

The beach, located just two blocks off Main Street, is a Russian River landmark that has offered a refreshing respite to locals and lured weary Bay Area urbanites to the forested river corridor for more than a century.

Much of that time, the beach was under the management of Clare Harris, 101, who bought the property with his brother, Herbert, in 1967 and remained the face of the operation when he and his brother’s six daughters later owned it together.

The ensuing decades brought new generations to frolic in the river but little change to Johnson’s Beach, where $3 burgers remained a staple and standards from the 1930s and ‘40 wafted from the snack shack speakers across the sand.

Harris’ wanted the place to stay the same and found kinship in the couple from San Francisco who bought it in March 2015, pledging to maintain its spirit and sense of nostalgia amid needed upgrades and hints of modernization.

Moore and Poirier had been visiting with friends on a holiday weekend about three years earlier when Moore told Harris of his longtime fondness for the venue and left his card, saying, “I love this place, and if you ever want to sell, would you call me?”

Two years later, Harris did, and within a year, a deal was struck.

The owners of Johnson's Beach, Nick Moore, left, and Dan Poirier, right, talk with previous owner Clare Harris, who owned the property, with other family members, for 47 years, in Guerneville on March 3, 2015. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
The owners of Johnson's Beach, Nick Moore, left, and Dan Poirier, right, talk with previous owner Clare Harris, who owned the property, with other family members, for 47 years, in Guerneville on March 3, 2015. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Hopkins on Wednesday described a “whirlwind” of discussions and community outreach since she toured the property Friday afternoon with several other county officials a few days after it went on the market. Also in attendance were Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker; Misti Arias, general manager of the county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District; and Dave Kiff, interim executive director of the Community Development Commission. Kiff and Whitaker declined to comment.

After a quick huddle following the walk-through, Hopkins raced to add negotiations as a last-minute item on the board’s Tuesday closed-session agenda to discuss a potential bid — a frantic effort made necessary by an Oct. 4 deadline for offers.

“It’s an amazing resource that’s been really important to the community for a long time,” Arias said. “We don’t want to miss the chance.”

But the county is not the only party carefully considering the property. Among the others is restaurateur and innkeeper Crista Luedtke, whose investments in town over a little more than a decade have been part of its renewal.

Luedtke said Wednesday she was interested in the beach property — which includes 10 vintage cabins from the 1920s, a four-bedroom, two-bathroom lodge, and a 38-tent campground — back in 2015, when “the boys,” Moore and Poirier, bought it from Harris and his family.

She said her primary interest now is ensuring that the beach retains its charm and spirit.

“It’s such a magical place, and it’s such the heartbeat of this town,” Luedtke said.

Now that the county has made its interest public, she’s also concerned about multiple government agencies running a complex business and doing it right — particularly after Hopkins in a Facebook post raised the possibility of using the cabins for work force housing or homeless services.

“To me, that is not what Johnson’s legacy is about,” Luedtke said. “Johnson’s legacy does amazing things not only for tourism but for the locals. When you go and you get a soft serve and a burger, you’re transported back to the ‘50s. That’s what it was meant to be.”

First graders from Summerfield Waldorf in Sebastopol celebrated the end of their school year by squeezing onto a tiny raft at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville on Thursday, June 17, 2021, the hottest day so far in 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
First graders from Summerfield Waldorf in Sebastopol celebrated the end of their school year by squeezing onto a tiny raft at Johnson's Beach in Guerneville on Thursday, June 17, 2021, the hottest day so far in 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Hopkins, who was interviewed before Luedtke and was not available later to address the issue of homeless services and housing, has said no plans for the property had been laid.

She said she had been reaching out to community leaders over the past few days and had added the topic to an already scheduled virtual town hall meeting scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 6.

“The point is to try to hear from the community,” Hopkins said. “I’ve learned not to come to this community with a fully baked plan.”

Moore, a financial planner who continued working part-time in San Francisco, and Poirier, who had just let a job with Wells Fargo Bank, opened the beach in 2015 at a time of new investment in Guerneville. The town, long a gathering spot for the LGBTQ community, was gaining ground as a getaway for foodies and hipsters. It has benefited, of course, from Sonoma County’s continually growing renown for outdoor adventures and wine culture, as well.

But Poirier and Moore have had to overcome significant challenges outside their control, beginning with the impacts of a drought that already was in its third year in 2015, resulting, like now, in low river flows and the threat of toxic blue-green algae.

Later, wildfires that brought severe smoke into the area, river flooding in February 2019, evacuations during the Walbridge fire in August last year and, of course, the ongoing pandemic and drought.

But Kathryn Proctor, President of Lodging Brokers Network, which has listed the property, said the financials indicate the couple has weathered the obstacles well, adapting to circumstances and creating an experience that continued to draw visitors.

“It’s an attractive location and investment, not just for visitors within the Bay Area but also international and beyond, because of the Sonoma County recognition,” she said.

Much at the beach has remained the same after the 2015 sale, but some locals chafed when the new owners decided to charge for parking for the first time — $7, the same as a county beach.

As part of its COVID-19 precautions, the beach required reservations for distanced, umbrella-shaded spots on the beach with daily fees of $15 to $40 added, depending on their distance from the shoreline.

Hopkins said there was a sense in the community that, though always a private operation, it had been more public in the past.

A potential public acquisition, she said, “feels like one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities to really, almost, for the community claim this in a way — you know, for this to really be about ‘What does Guerneville want to see? How can this be just the crown jewel for Guerneville?’”

But she acknowledged that Poirier and Moore will likely have multiple offers to consider, and that government acquisitions, requiring reviewed appraisals and multiple decision levels, tend to take longer than private purchases.

Poirier, who leads operations of the beach, has not returned multiple phone calls and messages seeking comment.

Luedtke, meanwhile, said she need to look carefully at the costs to see if they would pencil out for her and whatever partners she might assemble.

But Luedtke said she mainly hopes to see a private entity acquire the beach, even if it isn’t her.

After launching several businesses in Guerneville, she’s still operating a hotel and two restaurants in town.

“I need another project like I need a hole in the head, but I also want to see it step into its next chapter,” she said.

Arias said the county’s interest in exploring a public solution is driven by preserving open access to the beach and ensuring that it’s not further privatized.

“We want to be part of the conversation,” she said.

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include that Sonoma County is considering buying the beach.)

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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