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Sonoma County offer on Johnson’s Beach rejected; top bidder unidentified

Word is out that the owners of Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville have accepted an offer on the iconic stretch of riverfront land, but it remains a mystery as to who the new proprietors will be.

One thing is clear: Sonoma County is not taking over the 11-acre beach. At least, not yet.

Though the property remains in escrow and the current deal still could fall through, owners Dan Poirier and Nick Moore, who were not available for comment Wednesday, so far have rejected the county’s bid, said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes the area.

The owners also have informed local entrepreneur Crista Luedtke that she is not in the running either. Luedtke, who has opened a string of businesses in town over the past 13 years, owns a boutique hotel and two restaurants in Guerneville and said she has “mixed emotions” about being outbid, given the heavy demands on her time.

Moore and Poirier told Luedtke the same thing their broker told The Press Democrat — that the folks behind the winning bidder have a background in hospitality — news that Luedtke welcomed with excitement and relief.

“I believe the bidder definitely wants to build off of what the current owners and the previous owners have created,” said Kathryn Proctor, president of Lodging Brokers Network. “They really appreciate and value the iconic history and want to maintain that and improve upon it, hopefully, a little as well.”

Their intentions appear similar to those voiced by Moore and Poirier, who bought the property in 2014 from then-94-year-old operator Clare Harris, marking the first change of ownership in nearly 50 years. The pair wanted to maintain the traditional sense of nostalgia and safe, family fun offered up during the warm summer month just a few blocks off Main Street.

But they made enough changes to alter the experience somewhat, too — most notably during the past two pandemic seasons, which required visitors to reserve umbrella-shaded beach sites for a price. Paid parking had been introduced a few years earlier. For the decades before that, parking and hanging out on the beach was free. Johnson’s charged only for refreshments from the snack shack and array for rental boats and other equipment.

The property includes a 38-tent campground, a four-bedroom, two-bath lodge and 10 vintage cabins from the 1920s.

Proctor, who said the top bidders’ identity and offer were confidential, said the beach has been successful despite numerous setbacks, including flooding, wildfires and COVID-19. Proctor said Moore and Poirier are moving toward retirement, so they listed it for sale at the end of the summer season last month. The asking price was $3.7 million.

Hopkins spearheaded the county’s effort to buy the land as an addition to the Sonoma County Regional Parks system, in large part to preserve and enhance public access to the beach and to the large, graveled parking right above the sand that people sometimes use while patronizing local businesses.

Early in the process, Hopkins made remarks about hosting homeless services or worker housing on the property, which ignited controversy and was one of the factors that led Luedtke to join the bidding.

The fact that the county didn’t win the bid doesn’t mean it won’t somehow be involved.

Whoever buys the property could still grant the county an easement that would allow it to operate the beach, parking lot and concessions.

Luedtke had approached the county about a similar arrangement.

The difficulty, said Luedtke, is that finalizing an easement requires appraisals and public votes, in addition to lining up funding — a process that could take a year.

But Luedtke had to submit a bid before knowing if or how much the county might contribute to the cause, “and be OK if that contribution was zero.”

“All in all, the outcome is a good outcome, and we’ll wait and see what happens,” she said.

For her part, Hopkins said the county, also, remains eager to participate in operating the beach if the opportunity presents itself.

“We stand ready to work with any buyer regarding a recreation easement over the beach or acquisition of beach/parking lot, if they are interested in selling a portion,” she said.

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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