Ashfield Select Board sticks by open beach policy

  • Ashfield Parks Commission member Nate Russell, right, speaks to the Selectboard and fellow commissioners on Monday about resident requests to restrict access of Belding Memorial Park and its beach to out-of-towners. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Ashfield Lake, pictured in early July. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • Ashfield Lake, pictured in early July. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2022 9:06:56 AM
Modified: 7/22/2022 9:06:33 AM

ASHFIELD — Members of the Select Board and Parks Commission are standing by their decision to allow unrestricted access to Belding Memorial Park and the town’s beach, despite requests from a small group of residents.

“Historically, there was a time when the beach was restricted,” Parks Commission member Nate Russell explained on Monday. “Right now, the policy is open to anyone, anyone can come.”

Russell said a “vocal minority” of Ashfield residents have raised concerns — in the continuation of a decades-long saga about restricting beach use — about out-of-towners using the beach and taking up the limited parking spaces. These residents have cited language in Belding Memorial Park’s deed that the park only be used by Ashfield residents.

The parcel of land on Main Street (Route 116) was given to the town for $1 in 1928 by Milo and Annie Kirk Belding. A copy of the deed provided by the Parks Commission states the park will be under Ashfield’s ownership for “the perpetual use and maintenance thereon as a public park for the use and benefit of any and all residents of the town of Ashfield” and that the land shall be not used “in any way that will impair its beauty or interfere with its free and uninterrupted use as a pleasure resort for the inhabitants of the town.”

Russell said there is no language in the deed referring to people living outside of Ashfield; therefore the town has a choice in deciding whether to restrict the park. Additionally, as elected officials, Russell said they do their best to represent the town and if someone wants beach access to be restricted, then they should officially bring up the matter to town officials at meetings or Annual Town Meeting.

“If the deed doesn’t say we have to, then it clearly is a choice,” Russell said. “We value Ashfield because it is inclusive, but we all want to park at the beach, so I understand it. … If someone wants it restricted, they can come to the damn Town Meeting and put a motion forward.”

Select Board Chairman Tom Carter agreed with Russell, and said the town has put so much money and work into the park that it should be enjoyed by everyone.

“I love the attitude,” Carter said to Russell. “My question is, how do you folks think the park should operate? Over the last 30 years, the town’s probably invested close to $1 million in one way or another to improve the park. Did we build all that to put a fence around it and not let anyone use it?”

Russell said Town Counsel Donna MacNicol has written legal opinions on the matter in the past, but federal case law has changed. The matter, if residents wanted to bring it to court, would be decided in Massachusetts law, which could produce a different interpretation.

Carter asked if letters from residents are a “veiled threat to go to court” over the matter of beach access, and suggested the town will be fine.

“My simple answer to that is, ‘Bring it on,’” Carter said. “The only way it will ever be tested is for it to go to court.”

Carter’s fellow Select Board members were in agreement, saying the best way to put the issue to bed once and for all is to have it decided in court.

“This is the best we can do now,” said Select Board member Steven Gougeon. “If somebody wants to challenge it, we have the stem to do that.”

The Parks Commission, however, said it would like to avoid the hassle of a lawsuit.

“You guys are acting like you’ve never been sued before,” joked Select Board member Todd Olanyk.

Carter also raised the point that even if the town ended up restricting access to only Ashfield residents, enforcing it is another matter entirely because there are several entrances to the park.

“We have to have situational awareness — the situation is we don’t have the resources to monitor parking. It’s just not realistic,” Carter said. “That’s what I’d send you home with.”

“Until it goes to court, it’s our opinion,” Gougeon added. “Consider this our decision right now until it’s challenged.”


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