Residents ask: Why does the town want the boathouses?
Resident Renee Cingolani expresses her "disappointment" with Windermere's town council over the lawsuits against the owners of the Third Avenue boathouses during the Sept. 7, 2002 meeting.
The Windermere Town Council Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution that “officially” authorized the town attorney to sue the occupants of the Third Avenue boathouses who have refused to vacate the structures when their leases ended in June.
The town had already filed lawsuits in Orange County’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court against each of seven boathouse occupants on July 15. Wednesday’s vote, which took place during a special town council meeting that included a budget hearing, was largely seen as a procedure to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
Kurt Ardaman, the boathouse occupants’ attorney, had argued in court papers, that the lawsuits were not valid because a signed resolution had not accompanied the filed lawsuits. But an Aug. 25 memo from the town’s law firm GrayRobinson, obtained by VoxPopuli, emphasized that Windermere’s charter did not require signed resolutions for the town attorney to carry out such legal business and downplayed the vote as merely “tidying up the record.” Even Town Attorney Heather Ramos said ahead of the vote that she didn’t think the resolution “was absolutely necessary.”
Still, as the resolution stated, it was being put before the council out of “an abundance of caution regarding the work previously done by the Town staff and the Town Attorney, and with respect to legal work yet to be performed regarding the boathouses.”
While the town is suing the boathouse occupants for breach of contract, eviction and ejectment, the decades long fight is really over who owns the five historic boathouses that sit on the shore of the Palmer Park lagoon. The current occupants claim that they are the rightful owners by virtue of quit claim deeds through which ownership of the boathouses have been transferred for more than a century.
Ardaman, a partner in the Winter Park firm Fishback Dominick, also argues that, according to the 1856 Riparian Rights Act and the Butler Act of 1921, those who built the boathouses between 1910 and 1915 had title to the lake bottom because the structures are a permanent improvement. They also owned the shore rights (aka “littoral rights”) because the boathouses were constructed more than a decade before the town was founded. Those rights would have been deeded along with the boathouses.
The town’s position is that the town has signed contracts that state when the leases expired, the boathouses would be given to Windermere, but now the occupants are reneging on the deal.
At Wednesday’s meeting, boathouse owners and their supporters voiced their concerns to the town council about pursuing the lawsuits.
“I’m not happy, and I don’t think most people in Windermere care enough to have a lawsuit against their neighbors,” resident Renee Cingolani, who does not have a boathouse, said.
Mark Keller, who has lived in Windermere since 1958, recalled beating back another town council attempt to seize the boathouses in 1992 when he was a council member.
“The government continues to take away our rights. And this is a ‘taking,’” he said. “These people have bought their houses. They have these boathouses associated with them. They’ve lived there. They’ve gone to sell it or bought it [their houses] based upon these boathouses. It’s time for this government to rein in a little bit. You’re out of control.”
George Poelker, who owns one slip in boathouse #4, demanded an end to what he called “mistruths” about the boathouse lease negotiations that collapsed last year.
“I’ve heard from several sources that I’ve been accused of being the cause of you guys voting ‘no’ for that contract that Mr. Martini and I worked four months on,” he said. “I’m specifically talking to you, Mr. Mayor. It’s been you. And you’re smiling like you’re going to keep doing it. I don’t appreciate it. And I want it to stop. And I would like for all the other mistruths to stop also. Just start telling the truth. There’s nothing wrong with the truth.”
[VoxPopuli asked Mayor Jim O'Brien about that statement in March. He sent us this response via text: "It's my opinion that George as the boathouse leaseholders' representative did not seem particularly supportive of the negotiated lease product that he worked on during his public comment. He was unhappy with several small items and indicated that in his comments on the record."]
Outside Town Hall after the vote, Keller told VoxPopuli, “It’s deplorable what they’ve done. It’s people not being affected by what they’re ruling on. They’re drastically affecting other people’s lives and other people’s fortunes.”
Ann Fanelli, who owns boathouse #2, told VoxPopuli that she was “disappointed and disgusted that the town council and mayor did not have the decency to convene after the people from Windermere got up to speak. They just went right into their vote. It’s embarrassing for me to live in a town whose government behaves that way. The mayor smiling and smirking as people got up to speak was even more disgusting.”
Fanelli pointed to the irony that her own taxes would help pay for the town to sue her while she was forced to pay “big legal fees to keep what was deeded to us with our homes” and her home depreciated in value.
“I think it’s a waste of money,” Windermere resident Jessica Lee said, referring to the lawsuits. “No one has given any of us residents a true reason as to why they want the boathouses. People ask the question, and they refuse to answer it. I grew up here. I’ve seen big changes, and I don’t care what political side you’re on, it’s not right when it comes down to neighborly things and being a decent human.”
Asked about resident concerns that the legal fight was a “waste of money,” Robert Smith, Windermere’s town manager, wrote in an email to VoxPopuli, “the only means to resolve an issue between two parties that don’t agree is the court system.”