Updated: Apr 13
Windermere claims the town owns five boathouses at the foot of Palmer Park. Seven residents say they have quit-claim deeds that show otherwise, and they've retained a notable attorney to prove it.
Now things are really getting ugly.
“Okay, we’re taking the boathouses!”
It’s not clear which Windermere town council member made that giddy announcement at the March 8 meeting. But between the council’s votes to terminate the town’s month-to-month leases with the owners of five boathouses at the Palmer Park lagoon and approve surveillance cameras there and Mayor Jim O’Brien's moving on to town manager evaluations — next on the agenda — somebody just couldn’t contain themselves.
In the ongoing saga that may be called the “War of the Boathouses,” the town of Windermere had won this battle. It was the first step toward resolving, perhaps once and for all, the thorny issue of boathouse lease renewal and ownership that had bedeviled multiple mayors and town councils for decades.
The glee was palpable.
Meanwhile, a group of 10 boathouse owners and their supporters gathered outside Town Hall, after the votes, livid about the turn of events.
“They [council members] refused [to provide] any compensation,” said Dee Lee, who lives next to the boathouses, and was incredulous at the prospect. “They’re taking them after 100 years or more with no compensation, no consideration.”
“People have been trying to cooperate with them, and they don’t give you any consideration,” fumed Judy Black. In her faded jeans, white sneakers and navy sweater with “LAKE” in bold white letters across the front, Black has emerged as the ad hoc leader of the boathouse owners group that includes: her husband, George Poelker, Curt Fraser, Ann Fanelli, Russell Gentry, Joyce Rose and brothers Doug and Jerry Fay, whose boathouse has been in their family for more than 60 years.
Black has lived in Windermere since 1986, so she’s well-acquainted with the numerous boathouse battles fought over the years. Plus, as a realtor, she’s the one who handled many of the quit-claim deeds by which the boathouses changed hands.
"They don’t listen,” Black continued, referring to the town council. “They don’t care. They’ve got their own agenda.”
Earlier, during the meeting, she’d read a statement, lamenting the deterioration of the situation, placing the blame squarely on the town.
“I’m disappointed in the failure to reach an understanding way before we got to this point … I’ve witnessed the owners’ cooperation. They cooperated with working on a new lease. They cooperated with an idea of providing fair and reasonable compensation. They offered you first right of refusal to transfer ownership. Nothing that the owners presented was listened to or given any consideration,” Black said, addressing the council members. “I’m appalled at the lack of respect and disdain exhibited toward these town residents. I’m also very sad…It feels like a breakup. I feel betrayed because I wasn’t aware these political games existed in our town.”
“They were so dismissive of these folks’ rights,” says Kurt Ardaman. He’s the attorney the boathouse owners hired to represent them in what has the potential to become a highly emotional court fight. I caught up with Ardaman outside of Town Hall as he headed for the parking lot after the boathouse vote. A partner in Fishback Dominick, Ardaman, who is also city attorney for Winter Garden, had come down from his firm’s Winter Park offices to address the town council on behalf of his clients, laying out why he believed the lease that the boathouse owners had signed was faulty from the start.
His argument, passionately pitched from the speaker's podium, hinges on the idea that the town doesn’t own the boathouses or the bottom of Lake Butler beneath the boathouses. Nor does the town have the ability to lease the right-of-way to access the boathouses. Essentially, Ardaman told the council, his clients have never had any obligation to pay any fees ever, but they’d done so to “maintain the goodwill” of the town.
Ardaman pointed out that “prior to the leases the town requested, the boathouse owners and their predecessors not only constructed and maintained those boathouses at their private expense, they accessed these boathouses through walkways from the Pine Street right-of-way — no charge, no lease.”
(Indeed, more than one boathouse owner has pointed out the absurdity of being charged to walk across the few feet of public grass to reach their boathouses that anyone else can traverse for free.)
Back in the parking lot, Ardaman dismissed the council’s decisions. “They want to put up cameras, and they want to send a termination of lease that really has no effect at all,” he said. “Then they want to restore the boathouses. I don’t know how they’re going to restore my clients’ boathouses when they don’t own them. One of the council members said, We’re taking the boathouses. Taking is a lawful term. A taking without compensation of private property is unconstitutional. So if they want to perform an unconstitutional act, then we’ll see how it goes. That’s going to be pretty interesting.”
BUILT BETWEEN 1910 AND 1915 by the town’s co-founder John Calvin “Cal” Palmer, the boathouses predate Windermere itself, which was platted in 1920. There’s actually not much to the boathouses. Painted an institutional beige, with a roof and three walls (the fourth side is open to the water), the structures hardly qualify as “houses.” They’re more like carports for boats. And small boats at that. Curt Fraser, owner of boathouse #1, tells me he can't even get his 20-foot 1998 Nautique all the way inside. He managed to create a bit more space when he restored the interior, but says his "tiny boat" still sticks out two feet in the back.
Historically, the boathouses changed ownership through bills-of-sale or quit-claim deeds, often for as little as $10. Prices have gone up considerably. In 1998, a boathouse sold for $25,000 while a slip in a boathouse with two, went for $10,000 about 20 years ago. A boathouse may add between $200,000-$250,000 to a home’s value, says Black. And for most of the boathouse owners, the boathouse was a prime reason they bought the homes they did.
“That was a big draw of why I purchased my house,” says retired interior designer-turned artist Ann Fanelli, who owns boathouse #2. “I wanted a boat, and I wanted to be on the water, and this has access to the water. It diminishes the value of all of our homes not to have what we purchased our homes with.”
“It's unfortunate that the finger continuously gets pointed at the town when the town is just enforcing the lease that was agreed to by all parties” — Robert Smith, Windermere Town Manager
Fraser, a former NHL hockey player-turned-coach, lived for a time in Windermere before hockey coaching took him to other cities. But he uprooted his life to come back 18 months ago to purchase the former Palmer Luff residence, a Florida Cracker-style house, built by Cal Palmer’s great grandson, which sits across Palmer Park from boathouse #1.
“I walked by this place all the time when my kids were little, bringing them to Palmer Park," he recalls. "I’d always say, Geez, that’s a nice house.” Back then, he told Black to let him know if the house ever came on the market because he always had it in his mind to return to Windermere one day.
Twenty years went by; the kids were grown; and Fraser was living in Dallas with his wife, when Black finally called. “She says Hey Curt, that house, the family wants to know if you want the house still. I sold everything, and we moved down here,” says Fraser, who was until recently coaching the Chinese men’s hockey team for the Olympics. (He resigned because of a health issue).
“The boathouse on the lake was very attractive. It’s something you just never see. So when that came up, and it was the house and the boathouse. I'm in, like, all the way.”
“BOATHOUSE ISSUES HAVE COME UP since at least the ‘60s” writes Carl D. Patterson Jr., former Windermere town planner and historian, in Windermere Among the Lakes: The Story of a Small Town.
This latest battle centers on the town’s 2001 lease agreement with the boathouse owners, which was extended in 2011 and expired in 2021. The boathouse owners have been on month-to-month leases since then. It’s those leases that the town council voted to terminate last month. But to really understand the current anger, frustration, resentment and sorrow that have brought this tiny insular community of 3,649 people to the brink of litigation, we need to roll back to the early 1980s, when a member of town council decided that the boathouses were “eyesores,” according to Patterson, mounting a full-scale effort to have them removed.
Black remembers that period well. “There was a drought in the ‘80s and a lot of the boathouses were dry so they were not being used, and it’s a pretty shallow lagoon, and it was dried up,” she recalls. “One person on the town council, she sold a house next to the boathouses. I remember her saying, You buy this house, I’ll make sure they’re torn down.”
In 1985, then-Mayor Kim Barley had “opined that the town should control the boathouses because of their appearance, access to Lake Butler and maintenance,” according to a July 19, 2001, letter to the town council by former Town Attorney Bob Pleus. The letter, Pleus wrote, was meant to give the then-town council “some historical information about the longstanding boathouse controversy.” It discussed the now-familiar debate about boathouse ownership, liability concerns and the dilapidated condition of the boathouses.
Out of this tug-of-war, the first lease came, predicated on the idea that the “boathouse people had no right to be there,” Pleus wrote. The issue had been researched, he said, and “…the town probably owned the land where the boathouses were located up to the mean high water mark,” the letter continued. “The exact location of the mean high water mark had not been determined, but everyone assumed the boathouses were either on town property or if on submerged property owned by the state, the town had riparian rights.” (Italics mine)
Riparian rights are the rights to access and use the water abutting one’s property. If you ask Ardaman, those rights belong to the boathouse owners and have for decades, and that’s how he’s planning to keep the boathouses in the hands of those who purchased them. But, in 1986, Pleus drew up a five-year lease. The boathouse owners countered with a lease proposal of their own. It was rejected and they were told to sign the town’s lease or risk a lawsuit. When they still hadn’t complied after 30 days, the town sued. But before the case went to trial, a lease agreement was hammered out: 15 years at $10 a year, no potential for renewal.
“The only reason the lease exists is to settle a lawsuit and to put to rest the defendants’ claims of ownership,” wrote Pleus. “There was an understanding and agreement between me and the attorney for the defendants that at the end of the 15 years (2001), they would have to vacate the boathouses….There was no promise to give extensions because everyone knew the boathouses would come down in 2001.”
Except the boathouses didn’t come down. The boathouses were placed on the Local Register of Historic Places. New 10-year leases with a 10-year extension were signed in 2001. New owners came into the mix. Curt Fraser, one of those new owners, sank $10,000 into boathouse restoration when he moved back to Windermere 18 months ago. He spent six weeks restoring it with his son. “It’s like brand new,” he told me.
Fraser says he and the other owners have no intention of giving up their boathouses. They don’t see why they should since they have quit-claim documents. Even their leases state the boathouses belong to them.
“When your local government feels like it can come in and take something that doesn't belong to them, it’s just something that you don't think would happen here in our backyard or right here in the United States for that matter” — Ann Fanelli, boathouse owner
“If you examine the lease,” wrote Pleus, who drafted the 1986 original, “you will notice that it states that the lessee owns the boathouse structures and the lessor, the town, owns the land… My focus was on ownership of the land. The structures were in such a mess, I could care less who owned the structures, lumber, hoists, etc.”
“It's my structure,” says Fanelli who says she bought her boathouse with a quit-claim deed when she bought her home three years ago. “The previous owners had a quit-claim deed, which they passed to me.” She says just weeks ago the town’s mayor, Jim O’Brien, met with her at her home to explain that the "boathouse owners own the wood; the state owns the water; and the little strip of land in front of the boathouses is owned by the town of Windermere. That's what they have been leasing to us.”
“I don't want anybody leasing my structure,” Fanelli says, referring to a plan that the town may at some point establish a lottery system to open up rentals to the rest of the community. “I don't want anybody in my structure, my “wood” as Mayor O’Brien calls it. My boat is in my structure, and I'm not going to let somebody evict me.”
She is outraged that the town council could take what she believes is rightfully hers. “When your local government feels like it can come in and take something that doesn't belong to them, it’s just something that you don't think would happen here in our backyard or in our hometown or right here in the United States for that matter,” says Fanelli. “I'm from Texas, and when the state of Texas needed to build a highway, they paid me fair market value for my property.”
FROM THE TOWN’S PERSPECTIVE, those quit-claim deeds mean diddly.
Although the Palmer Park boathouses had been bought and sold using quit-claim deeds for decades, the town’s law firm, Gray-Robinson, drafted a Nov. 4, 2020, memo to the town council, saying that a formal title search was “unable to provide a clear chain of title for the boathouses” but that there’s a “strong argument that the town is the owner of the boathouses.”
Why did the firm disregard the quit-claim deeds during its title search since that's historically how the boathouse ownership had been transferred? We don't know. Heather Ramos, the town’s attorney, did not respond to VoxPopuli’s repeated requests for an interview. But the Gray-Robinson memo suggests that even if the boathouse users own the boathouses, the point is moot, since the boathouse users signed leases agreeing to turn the boathouses over to the town once their leases were up. From the memo:
“…the parties negotiated an end date for the Lease Agreements – February 28, 2021….There is likely little legal recourse for a boathouse lessee, especially since the Lease Agreements are negotiated contracts and the language and requirements in the Lease Agreements are clear.”
In other words, the occupants may be entitled to the lumber building materials, the boat hoists, fixtures, indeed everything that actually comprises the boathouses; they’re just not entitled to have them at the Palmer Park lagoon. It is literally a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum.
Having a quit-claim deed, explains Town Manager Robert Smith means “you have an interest in something. But your interest only goes as far as what that other person’s interest is. So if someone's interest is a lease, then that’s all they have transferred over to you. It’s not ownership. And I don’t know if that’s been explained to those that have acquired property where they assumed it came with a boathouse.
“It's unfortunate that the finger continuously gets pointed at the town when the town is just enforcing the lease that was agreed to by all parties,” he adds.
“I do believe that there needs to be some discussion, at least with the current tenants, on what was represented to them when they purchased their homes and what documents were provided to them and what was the intent of those documents or what discussions were ongoing when those documents were provided to them and what, if anything related to the current use,” says Smith. “Because if I represent to you that I own something and I don’t own something, then I would take issue with that. I wouldn’t blame the person that rightfully owned it. I’d blame the person that told me that I owned something that I didn’t.”
JUDY BLACK BELIEVES THE TOWN HAS BEEN scheming for years to take possession of the boathouses. In 2012, she and the other boathouse owners were tipped about a town workshop, she recounts. She had no idea what it was about, but a friend told her it would be a good idea if she and the other boathouse owners were there. Black remembers finding two women who’d long had the boathouses in their sights sitting there, “like cats who’d swallowed canaries.” As the meeting progressed, it became apparent that town officials believed they finally controlled the boathouses and were deciding what to do with them.
“They’d gotten a legal opinion that the town owned them because the boathouse owners had not extended their leases,” Black recalls. “Then one of the boathouse owners, Bill Rose, who had his file with him, said, Wait a minute, we did sign the extensions. Jerry Fay also had his extension. They’d signed their extensions shortly after they signed their leases. They had copies with them. [Then] Mayor Bruhn got very upset and stomped out of the building saying, What are you wasting my time for?!”
[VoxPopuli spoke with former Mayor Gary Bruhn who denied this version of events. “That is totally false,” he said in a phone interview. “I never stomped out. I had to finish the meeting.”]
“We live in a small town,” says Black. “Robert Smith had only been town manager for a year. The previous town manager, if you were late on a payment or missed something, she’d send you a little note or call you up or something. They did nothing. They didn’t call and say Hey, did you forget to sign the extension? or Do you intend to sign the extension? They contacted an attorney first and scheduled a meeting second. It just seemed to me that they had this little conspiracy going on. The first time I even considered any such thing was at that meeting in 2012.”
FOR A MOMENT, IN THE FALL, it looked like another, new lease might be in the offing. The town council had approved the endeavor. The town attorney, Heather Ramos of Gray-Robinson, drafted a starter document. And George Poelker, who owns a slip in boathouse #4, and Council Member Bill Martini huddled up to negotiate.
“He was pretty amenable to changing things. He had some things he didn’t want to budge on, and I had things I didn’t want to budge on,” says Poelker. But after a few months negotiating, he thought he and Martini had come up with a workable document: $150 per month for a single-slip boathouse and $125 per month, per slip for boathouses with two. Occupants would be responsible for taxes and insurance. In 2041, the town would take possession. And that would be the end of it.
For a group that hadn't wanted to relinquish the boathouses at all, ever, this seemed a decent compromise.
“We were hoping they would give us some compensation, essentially buy [the boathouses] from us, but let us then rent them for another 20 years. That was the whole idea,” says Poelker, sitting in his dining room on a recent afternoon. “They should be ours. They should be owned by private individuals forever. There shouldn’t be any lease involved. But we decided as a group that we would enter a 20-year lease and give them ownership of the boathouses at the end of that time frame without any question. It wasn’t great, but we were okay with it. Everybody would have signed it, and everybody would have gone along with it.”
In October, the council voted it down 3-2.
“We were saying, Let’s just do it for the benefit of the town. Everything will be great. We’ll continue with the new lease,” says Fraser. “They were never going to make a deal with us.”
“Not only did they turn it down, they made it appear like the boathouse owners weren’t interested,” says Black. “The mayor said George ‘nitpicked it’ by making some changes, and they said forget it.”
O’Brien denied saying that the other boathouse occupants were “uninterested in the revised lease.”
“I don’t believe that is or was the case,” he told VoxPopuli via text message. He added, “I don’t believe that I stated that [George] nitpicked it. He was unhappy with several small items (cost, CPI, repairs) and indicated that in his comments on the record. I have done my best to be respectful of all involved and to set an example for the council. The council has been very respectful. The threats and the disrespectful name-calling that council and staff have endured during this process only proves the importance of resolving this issue.”
Council Member Martini did not respond to several emails requesting comment.
“THIS IS INDICATIVE OF A REAL FAILURE OF representative government,” says Russell Gentry. A data, marketing, and tech guy who owns two companies in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Gentry moved up from Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Cindy and his teenage son Brogan, two years ago. He owns boathouse #3.
In February, he put together an online petition that asked the question, “Do you support continued private ownership of the boathouses?” After he purged responses from those who had Windermere zip codes but not town addresses, Gentry was left with 62 Yes’s. The petition was ignored, he says.
“It doesn’t feel like the council is listening or paying attention to the residents on this,” Gentry says.
“Listen if they put a referendum out before the town, and 51 percent of the town said Hell, no! You guys are doing it all wrong. Those boathouses, you’re cheating. We want a different way. Then I’d tip my hat and go along because that’s the majority. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. It’s really just the views and opinions of a handful that are operating in a vacuum. I’ve never seen anything like this. At any given meeting, I’ve only ever seen two or three people speak out against the boathouse owners.”
Smith says it was up to the town council how to consider the online petition. But he didn’t give it much weight.
“It’s hard to give actual validity to some online petitions,” Smith says. “They can be signed by anybody, whether they’re a town resident, a friend, a neighbor, someone out of state. They have 64 signatures and we have 3,000 residents. You have to take a look at who are the current tenants who were on the petition, who’s family and who’s friends, and when you talk to people who actually signed the petition, do they know the actual issues?”
Gentry says it’s not just the boathouses that the current owners are concerned about, but what could happen to the quiet lagoon with its varied birdlife, fishing and alligators, should it become a public launch site for paddle-boards, kayaks and jet skis heading out to Bird Island.
“Lake accessibility is coveted, and the way people want to get their kayaks and jet skis in, they’re not going to be turned away,” he says. “It kind of disturbs the peace. The town has done a horrible job of managing it. There were numerous requests by the residents who live adjacent to Fernwood [Park] who said Please help us, and the town had to spend additional funds and put up video cameras. So I just think you open up a Pandora’s Box if you make it public access down there. The town is not equipped to manage that.”
MEANWHILE, THE DECADES-LONG FIGHT has opened up schisms in the community, and each side is pointing fingers and accusing the other of acting in bad faith.
Poelker, the co-owner of boathouse #4, is so angry and disheartened, in January he publicly resigned as chair of the Historic Preservation Board, a volunteer position he’s held for the past three years. “I’m very, very disappointed in the way the town is run right now,” he told me.
“Can you imagine?!” says Fraser angrily. “George, who’s done everything for this town for the last 20 years has to resign because it was getting too personal. That’s bullshit. They screwed up with that.”
The disrespect irked Fraser. He took particular issue with town council members saying things like “We got to get those people out of there.” Like somehow the owners of the boathouses were interlopers in their own community.
“We gotta get those people out of there? We’re the custodians of the boathouses who’ve looked after them for 100 years. Not me, I’ve only been here for a couple years. But the people who’ve owned the boathouses have looked after them for 100 years. And all of a sudden there’s a handful of people on the town council who think they own them? And they’re just going to do whatever they want? And they started with Get those people out of there. Then it just, it just kept getting worse and worse, and worse, at these town meetings.”
Black claims that Smith, the town manager, recently commented that she could be sued for misrepresentation since she brokered many of the real estate deals involving the boathouses. “He didn't say my name, but he said that whoever sold those houses with the boathouses, it really depends on what they were told, and perhaps that should also be disclosed to Kurt Ardaman. I consider that a veiled threat.”
Smith told VoxPopuli in an email that his comments were prompted by a March 12, 2022, email from Black, obtained by VoxPopuli, in which she compared the boathouse owners to Ukraine and the town to Putin, writing, “You’re aggressively taking and they’re going to fight … for their rights, for their lifestyle and for their boathouse [sic]…” Smith responded that the comparison to Ukraine was “reprehensible” and that if Fanelli, Fraser and Gentry "purchased their homes and paid a premium for those homes based on any representation that they owned a boathouse, then I believe they have [a basis for] independent legal action…”
For Mayor O’Brien, the whole situation has gotten “more severe” than he’d anticipated. All he has wanted to do is “preserve the boathouses … and avoid this issue reoccurring every 20 years as it has for the past 60 years,” he said in a text. “I have no desire other than not passing this ongoing and contentious issue on to our children.”
AT THE MOMENT, NO LAWSUITS have been filed. But the lease-termination letters should be arriving in mailboxes soon. The boathouse owners' attorney warned council members not to interfere with his clients’ access to their boathouses.
“As your town attorney will tell you, access rights are a substitute property right recognized under Florida law,” Ardaman told the town council March 8. “In order for the boathouse owners to be able to use their boathouses, they must be able to continue to exercise their rights of ingress and egress which access was recognized for multiple decades prior to the leases.”
This most recent version of the boathouse battle is far from over. Indeed, it may not have even really begun.
“The town works for us, the residents,” says Fraser, taking a break from painting the trim on a shed in his backyard on a recent afternoon. “For the town to get into fights with residents isn’t good. The only way out is for them to recognize that this is how it’s worked from the beginning. The boathouse owners take care of the boathouses and pay taxes and insurance. It makes no sense to change it. I hope the town can come around because it has more important things to take care of, and we’d like to get this over with and move on.”
I reach Ann Fanelli on her cell and ask her what she thinks. “In my gut, I think this is probably going to get worse before it gets better," she says. “But I’m not a fortune teller.”