Windermere leaders discuss boathouse leases

In a recent workshop, town leaders reviewed options for moving forward with future leases for the five historic boathouses at Palmer Park.

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  • | 2:37 p.m. June 2, 2021
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After years of fielding questions regarding Windermere’s five historic boathouses, town staff and council members are working toward a long-term solution.

In a Town Council workshop held Tuesday, May 25, council members set out to discuss how to move forward with the boathouse leases while being as fair as possible to all residents.

The boathouses, located in Palmer Park west of Main Street, are estimated to be more than 100 years old. The town decided to lease them out 20 years ago, each lease with an initial 10-year term. The leases then automatically renewed for another 10-year term.

Between the administrative work that comes with the boathouses and the pressure residents put on the town to answer the question of how one can obtain a boathouse, the issue has become burdensome. However, a new game plan is in the works.

The current boathouse leases were set to expire in February, but Town Council voted in December 2020 to extend them to August to give the Historic Preservation Board and Parks and Recreation Committee time to review options.

Town staff worked with the Historic Preservation Board to outline some suggestions for new boathouse leases moving forward.

Highlights of the proposed conditions include granting current tenants a 99-year lease; requiring that lessees pay property taxes and a maintenance or rental fee; and allowing bequeathment of the lease to any immediate descendent who is a town resident. Boathouse lessees must also be town residents and would be responsible for all maintenance and repairs. If a tenant moves out of town, he or she would need to transfer their lease. Additionally, Town Council would determine a reasonable rental fee.

George Poelker, chair of the Historic Preservation Board and also a current boathouse lessee, said the board’s main goal is to ensure the boathouses are well maintained because of their historic significance.

“We would like to make sure that the boathouses are kept in good repair and preserved because of their history and the ambiance they bring to the town,” Poelker said. “The points that are here in this executive summary go a really long way toward solving the goals and the issues we’ve had with the boathouses for a long time, and I think it’s a really good start.” 

“My biggest goal here is — no matter what council decides — that we’re able to do it in a way that’s really clear and concise and doesn’t pass down this challenging situation again and again.” — Mayor Jim O’Brien

Resident Doug Kegler wrote to town staff in favor of staff’s recommendation of renewing a 99-year lease with current tenants. His property is directly affected by any decisions made.

“We like and appreciate the historical significance of the boathouses and only ask that they remain kept up and presentable,” Kegler wrote. “If the boathouses were to be removed and/or kayak rentals to occur in the area, it would significantly increase the trespassing problems I have on my property and dock in that area.”

On the other hand, resident and former council member Bob McKinley wrote in his statement that it wasn’t fair to other residents who have wanted a boathouse.

“I am dismayed to see that the HPB and town staff are making recommendations to reward current lease holders with a 99-year lease and effectively vacating any town claim to ownership of the structures,” McKinley wrote. “This definitely is not in the best interest of other town residents who would have loved to have had the lease rights to these boathouses.”

Mayor Jim O’Brien acknowledged it is a challenging topic, and the town wants to be as fair as possible.

“I certainly want to make sure that we do it 100% the most right way that we possibly can and do what’s fair for everybody, noting that this is challenging,” he said. “These are folks that have had these boathouses for a long time, — they have deeds, they have leases — but there’s also the feeling that, ‘Hey, some folks would prefer to have more access or more use for other folks in town or to do a lottery.’ My biggest goal here is — no matter what council decides — that we’re able to do it in a way that’s really clear and concise and doesn’t pass down this challenging situation again and again.”

O’Brien asked council members for each of their top four requirements for new boathouse leases going forward. Most agreed lessees should be town residents, the leases should be long-term, some rights of survivorship should be available, and that Town Council should assess a fair market value for rent.

Council members will vote on how to proceed with the boathouse leases at their next meeting. In the meantime, staff will work on drafting new leases and work with the Historic Preservation Board on maintenance and repair standards.