Reaching ‘a boiling point’ at Leeds swimming hole

  • Mariel Perez walks with her granddaughter, Liannalee Valez, 1, in the Mill River by the Orange Dam in Leeds on Monday afternoon, July 6, 2020. They were one of many families enjoying the river on Monday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Eliezer Betancourt teaches his sister Sofia to swim in the Mill River by the Orange Dam in Leeds, Monday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Adam Cayer waits in the water for Jaxon Herd-Andrade, 5, to finish his flip off a rock at the Mill River in Leeds. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People come from all over to swim in the Mill River in Leeds. Residents complain about the noise and garbage left behind. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Agnell Morales and Jasani Rosario jump off the Orange Dam in Leeds while friends watch Monday afternoon. People have been jumping off the dam for generations.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Agnell Morales does a backflip off the Orange Dam in Leeds while his friends watch Monday afternoon. People have been jumping off the dam for generations. Families also come to swim there. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jaime Figueroa plays with Liv Cass in the water above the Orange Dam in Leeds. Behind him is Mia Cass; the three of them were there with the girl’s mother, Ari Cass, last week.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People come from all over to swim in the Mill River in Leeds. Residents complain about the noise and garbage left behind. There are no garbage cans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People come from all over to swim in the Mill River in Leeds. Residents complain about the noise and garbage left behind. There are no garbage cans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People come from all over to swim in the Mill River in Leeds. Residents complain about the noise and garbage left behind. There are no garbage cans near the river. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dave Moses stands in front of the apartment he rents in Leeds that’s at the entrance to the bike path that leads to the Orange Dam at the Mill River. “I don’t mind the swimmers,” he said, “it’s the slight disrespect and acts of thoughtlessness” of just some of the visitors. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A residential apartment in Leeds that’s at the entrance to the bike path that leads to the Orange Dam at the Mill River. People often park in the driveway and unload before heading to the dam for a swim. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dave Moses stands in front of the apartment he rents in Leeds that’s at the entrance to the bike path that leads to the Orange Dam at the Mill River. “I don’t mind the swimmers,” he said, “it’s the slight disrespect and act of thoughtlessness” of just some of the visitors. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2020 4:55:30 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As summer heats up, people are looking for a place to swim or cool off, and one of the more popular spots is the Mill River in Leeds near the Orange Dam.

But recently, some residents have been complaining about noise and litter at the site. As of last week, city police had received 34 calls to the Orange Dam area this year, mostly complaints about trash and noise, according to Police Chief Jody Kasper.

“Thirty-four, considering it’s just July, is a lot,” she said. Over the Fourth of July weekend and into this week, the department got four more calls.

Chartpak, an art and office supply company, owns the dam. But it’s the neighbors who have put up a handmade wooden sign on the bike path that leads to it: “Please, make less noise & carry out your trash. Thank you!”

A deflated beach ball, empty beer bottles, broken glass, a diaper and a sanitary pad are among the items of trash shown in photos taken by Heidi Stevens, a Leeds resident, near the river and bike path after the holiday.

Stevens, who lives about 150 yards from the Orange Dam area, sent the photos of what she called a “trash hangover” to the Gazette on Monday. For the past few years, she has gone out regularly to clean up “bag after bag of garbage” on the river, she said.

People have been jumping off the dam forever, Stevens said — “Everyone’s been doing it for generations” — but they weren’t always bringing boom boxes and leaving trash, she claims. “It was trespassing, but it wasn’t a disturbance to everyone else.”

Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore said she understands why people want to swim at the dam, “but it’s become problematic.”

Last weekend, Maiore saw around 100 people near the dam, and she recently picked up three bags of trash near Cook’s Dam, also a popular swimming spot in Leeds. “The garbage is really out of control,” she said.

Since she was on the campaign trail last year, Maiore has heard residents’ concerns about the area. “There’s a range of views amongst residents,” she said, “from ‘Let’s shut it all down and have resident-only parking’ to ‘It really should be done more equitably.’” Some have suggested putting in trash barrels and port-a-potties, Maiore said, “more of a welcoming attitude couched with responsibility.”

And while it may not be true for everyone, “I sense some tension between the mostly white residents and the mostly people of color utilizing the swimming holes,” she said. “It’s undeniable to me there’s racial and social context with our swimming holes in Leeds. I think ignoring it makes it harder to address the issue … That’s why I think we need to approach it thoughtfully.”

“I do feel like race is a part of it,” Elizabeth Rios, of Granby, said Thursday afternoon at the riverbank. She thinks neighbors notice that many people of color are coming into the neighborhood and that it “scares” them.

Stevens said she usually doesn’t know who’s swimming and she doesn’t particularly care. “I don’t judge what group — whoever they are — is down there. What I do judge is what is left behind and the noise.”

The noise and trash left behind have been an issue in recent years, said Jason Johnson, who lives near the dam and is the vice president of the Leeds Civic Association (LCA).

“We’ve been dealing with it pretty actively for the past five years, since the Leeds extension of the bike path was paved going north,” Johnson said. “That enabled people not only to get there more easily but to wheel things up like coolers and grills, and more recently playpens and very large speaker boxes, and then set up on Chartpak property and party all day long.”

“I see people walking down the street like it’s Mardi Gras with open containers of alcohol,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Looking for answers

On Monday afternoon, the dam was littered with empty water, beer and vodka bottles. But it was relatively quiet and peaceful, with several families wading in the water and children playing.

Residents say it can get loud. “We suffer from the incredible volume of noise and the length of noise,” Stevens said. “It’s not just music — it’s screaming and yelling and whooping and hollering and arguing — and it’s extremely unnerving.”

Chris Sekaer has lived near the dam for two years and says it “feels like living around a completely unregulated swimming pool with no oversight.”

Several days ago, someone was playing music by the river. “I could feel the thump the way you feel music in your body,” Sekaer said, later adding, “There has to be a better way to somehow regulate it.”

In addition to the dam, Chartpak owns the riverbanks behind it, said Wayne Feiden, director of the city’s office of planning and sustainability. On the river next to Chartpak’s property, there is also land that the city isn’t sure who owns.

“It’s not clear in the records,” Feiden said. It’s likely owned by Chartpak as well — or technically, the holding company that owns Chartpak — but until an attorney goes through all the records, he said, they won’t know for sure.

Several years ago, the city looked into acquiring the land and asked Chartpak to sign a release deed — meaning the company would give up any possible interest in the land — but Chartpak said no, according to Feiden.

Feiden said his department is considering all the angles and planning to conduct interviews with both neighbors and visitors to the area.

“We are talking to various stakeholders now with no preconceived notion of what, if anything, comes out of this process,” he said in an email.

“Trash and noise and human sewage going in the water is a big issue,” Feiden noted. “I totally sympathize with the neighbors.”

At the same time, he said, “When you have hundreds of people using the site, that reflects the demand is there.”

There are “no trespassing” signs on the trees between the bike path and the dam. But because the dam is private property, Kasper said that her department can only respond to calls; someone from Chartpak would need to issue any trespass orders.

The best solution is not an enforcement approach, Kasper said.

“We don’t want to be arresting family members up there for a swim,” the chief said. “They are there with their children. It’s not a good solution. I know some people are frustrated at what’s going on, but the department has been very involved in trying to address this.”

Chartpak is aware of the problems on the property and gets complaints “on a daily basis,” said the company’s Director of Operations Joe Cliche. Cliche said the company is getting estimates to fence in the dam and river property, which would be a short-term fix, and in the longer term, it is looking into removing the dam altogether. “I think it’s the most viable option to remove all the issues we have,” Cliche said.

‘Let people live’

George Lopez and his family were among several dozen people at the dam and farther upstream on the banks of the river earlier this week. His daughter is nonverbal and doesn’t like crowds, so they came to the river from Springfield for a quiet swimming spot, he said. Lopez hadn’t heard about the neighbors’ concerns until a reporter told him. “Tell the neighbors they need to let people live,” he said.

Adam Cayer, 18, of Granby, who was jumping off the dam into the water, said he has been swimming at the site for several years. “This is my favorite spot,” he said, adding that he never noticed the “no trespassing” signs.

It can get loud, Cayer said, noting that he has seen a lot of trash around the dam: “Some people pick up trash, some don’t.”

“I noticed the trash, too, and it pissed me off,” said Samantha Halm, a Northampton resident who was at the dam Thursday. A few days ago, she brought a bag and cleaned up some litter, she said.

“Any trash I bring in, I bring out … It’s a beautiful spot,” Rios said, noting that she wants to keep it that way. She likes the sign on the bike path about noise and trash — “that’s what’s ruining it for people who come here and enjoy it,” she said.

A community meeting about the issue is “in the works,” Maiore said. “The worst thing we can do is nothing. It’s really becoming a boiling point.”

Chartpak needs to be part of the conversation, she said. “I really think one of the missing links in the case of Leeds has been, we really need more engagement from Chartpak who owns the private dam that people are jumping off.”

When told the company was thinking about removing the dam, Halm expressed sadness. “It’s such a gem of a place — one of the gems of the Valley,” she said while standing on the dam. “It would be sad if they took it down.”

Soon after, she jumped into the water with a splash.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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