The five boathouses can be seen behind Windermere Town Manager Robert Smith in this town-issued October 2020 video clip about the issue.

Windermere favors preserving, rehabbing historic boathouses

Instant Photo Poster
By
Dibya Sarkar

Managing Editor

Thursday, February 24, 2022

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Screenshot of Town of Windermere video clip

The five boathouses can be seen behind Windermere Town Manager Robert Smith in this town-issued October 2020 video clip about the issue.

Windermere’s town council appears to have galvanized around a plan that may determine the fate of five boathouses, which has been the subject of a heated ownership dispute over the last few years. However, an attorney for the boathouse owners said the town is trampling on the rights of his clients.


“The town is attempting to bully and take private property in a haphazard way,” said attorney Kurt Ardaman in a telephone interview Thursday . He added that his clients actually own the structures and are not tenants, as the town has described them.


Following a Tuesday night workshop, the town council will likely move forward with a proposal based on a recommendation from the Historic Preservation Board to maintain, rather than raze, the boathouses given their historical significance; terminate the current leases so the structures would be empty; restore the structures over the course of about a year; and then possibly lease them through a lottery system.


“I think that’s a prudent approach,” said Council Member Tony Davit during the Zoom meeting, referring to the Historic Preservation Board’s recommendation. Davit’s comments were echoed by the other council members during the 40-minute workshop.


Council Member Andy Williams said assessing the condition of the structures and updating them will take at least six months. “I think we’re going to find out that it’s going to take a lot longer than we plan,” he said. “My whole thing is, what do we have to work with? We really don’t know.” He said some of the structures appear to be in “great shape” while others seem to be in “poor shape.” In the end, he said some of those structures might be leasable while others would exist for “aesthetic” purposes.


The town will also consider adding a post-and-rail fence and surveillance cameras so people don’t trespass on the boathouses — located along 3rd Avenue, west of Palmer Park — if and when they become empty. Town Manager Robert Smith said that if the town does decide to rehabilitate those structures, it will then have to provide a notice of termination to the current leaseholders.


Mayor Jim O’Brien indicated that an actual vote on this proposal would take place at a council meeting, likely March 8, with the appropriate motions.


While he didn’t attend Tuesday’s workshop, Fishback Dominick partner Ardaman, whose Winter Park-based firm was recently retained to represent the owners of the boathouses, said he was “surprised” that the town council didn’t even acknowledge that his clients had any interest in the structures.


FAQs posted about the boathouses, on the town’s website, indicate that the nearly 100-year old structures have been leased for the last 20 years to several residents. It said the original lease expired in February 2021, which was extended to August of that year to give town officials more time to decide next steps, including whether to extend the leases or implement a lottery system. (In October 2020, Smith, the town manager, also posted a five-minute video clip, addressing rumors about the boathouses at the time.)


The town’s FAQs also noted that the current tenants “would argue” that they own the boathouses. “The Town disagrees with this position, and Council is willing to defend their position in court should the current tenants file a lawsuit to determine ownership. The proper venue to resolve this issue is court system [sic], rather than litigation in the court of public opinion (social media, videos, emails, etc.).”


Ardaman, who noted that some of his clients’ families have owned the structures for generations, said the leases in question cover access to the structures from a right of way, not ownership of the structures. He also pointed out that the town has even acknowledged multiple times in the past that his clients own the structures, which are documented in old leases and elsewhere.


At Tuesday’s workshop, town officials also considered recommendations from the Long Range Planning (LRP) Committee and the Parks & Recreation Committee (PRC).


LRP recommended preserving Boathouse #1 for historic reasons and removing the remaining structures, creating a designated area to launch non-motorized watercraft and turning the remaining area into a public park. PRC recommended the town retain the structures, invest about $35,000 to bring them up to standard and lease each for about $200 per month to residents for their “personal enjoyment” through a lottery system.


A few residents who spoke at the virtual meeting or whose letters were read aloud indicated that the structures should be preserved but differed on how they should be leased. “The town has very few historic structures left that are actually owned by the town, and I think that needs to be protected,” said resident Brandi Haines, who equated them to the preservation of the town’s dirt roads.


Resident Doug Kegler, who said he lives next door to the boathouses, said he’s in favor of preserving the boathouses and keeping the current tenants in there, but he indicated that the latter issue may be a separate matter. He said if the town doesn’t want to lease the boathouses then it should keep them as historic structures rather than turn the area into a public park.


While Ardaman called the town’s comments “heavy handed” and “pretty shocking,” he said he hopes that council members will do the right thing and “honor the private rights of our clients.” He said he hopes the issue won’t go to court.


“We don’t want to litigate,” he said.


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