Residents in and around the town of Windermere recently have expressed concerns regarding the continued closure of Orange County boat ramps, including the one located at R.D. Keene Park, since Sept. 30, 2022.
Orange County closed its boat ramps because of a lake advisory following Hurricane Ian.
“The lake advisory was for all bodies of water, and it was based on high water levels, possible debris in the water, potential of water contamination due to flooding and to prevent property damage,” Orange County officials said. “Following the closures, each boat ramp location was assessed for safety, water quality and water levels, and each opened when it was safe for public access.”
Although the county said the ramps continue to stay closed, Windermere locals have scrutinized the decision, citing the financial impacts and unrealistic expectations for water levels. Furthermore, there is no estimated time for reopening.
“I have searched for a logical explanation but am left to surmise why,” resident Tom Walker said. “We do have a new commissioner in District 1. I do not know the makeup of the other commissioners. They are ultimately the people that made the decision to close the ramps. It makes no logical sense to close the ramps to the public and allow everyone living on the lake unfettered access. It defies the logic they use to shut down the ramps.”
Following the closures, Orange County said each boat ramp location was assessed for safety, water quality and water levels, and each opened when it was safe for public access.
As of Jan. 13, two of Orange County Parks and Recreation’s 11 boat ramps remain closed until further notice: R.D. Keene Boat Ramp and Lake Down Boat Ramp.
“These two ramps remain closed due to high water levels,” Orange County officials said. “As of Jan. 22, Lake Butler was 0.82 feet above Normal-High-Water levels. We continue to monitor each ramp and will open when levels lower, however at this time we do not have a projected opening date.”
District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said Orange County’s public boat ramp is not in Windermere town limits, and though she works closely with the town, she has no jurisdiction over the parks and recreational policy in Windermere proper.
However, the boat ramp at R.D. Keene Park, located at 10900 Chase Road, is overseen and maintained by the Orange County Parks and Recreation division.
“Generally speaking, ramp closures anywhere in the county are based on health and safety concerns — more specifically in select locations such as R.D. Keene Park, elevated water levels and submerged debris continue to be a determinate in the Orange County ramp closure,” Wilson said.
Angel Gonzalez, administrative assistant for Wilson, said updated guidance was created by Orange County last year in the wake of Hurricane Ian regarding boat ramp re-openings. He said this will be the county’s guidelines going forward.
“This is the reason you may have seen boats on the lake previously despite high levels, as these policies were not yet adopted,” Gonzalez said. “Our office continues to share the frustration of residents who are awaiting the reopening of R.D. Keene ramp among others.”
Regarding ramp closures, the town of Windermere closely follows Orange County guidelines.
Tonya Elliott-Moore, public works director in the town of Windermere, said last week Orange County reported that because of the still-high-water levels, there continues to be the potential damage from wakes and the danger from submerged objects.
Orange County is shooting for the normal high of 98.48 feet. The current elevation, as of last week, is 99.3 feet.
“The town is committed to letting folks know when the ramps reopen via our social media channels as we understand some are eager to get back out on the lakes via the public boat ramps,” Elliott-Moore said. “Naturally, the safety of individuals and protection of property is of paramount importance.”
Wilson said her office has only received complaints from a vendor who operates a private business, boat tours, through the public boat ramp and that her office has responded with a thorough explanation about the county park safety procedures.
“Windermere residents continue to be supportive of additional precautions because they are still struggling with high water levels and damaged docks,” she said. “It is also important to note that private property access to Orange County lakes are not affected by the safety precautions taken at Orange County parks. We continue to ask all boaters to use caution — the elevated water levels have caused substantial erosion and damage to the shoreline. Boat wakes in those areas compound the risk of further damage to structures damaged by hurricanes Ian and Nicole (last one was only two months ago).”
Walker said last summer, he and his son bought a fishing boat to spend some quality time together. Because the pair lives only 10 minutes from the Butler Chain, they knew that would be a great resource when time is of the essence.
However, since the ramp has closed, the two have not been on the water.
“The community knows what a great resource the Butler Chain is,” Walker said. “In good weather on the weekends, the 47-vehicle parking lot at (R.D. Keene) fills and turns into a one-in, one-out situation. There is another public ramp that is currently closed with no parking. This community loves the lakes, because it offers great swimming, recreational boating and great fishing. There is also a great tour and charter fishing that has come to a halt.”
To Walker’s knowledge, he said the ramp had never been closed to public access because of hurricanes until the fall of 2022.
Walker has maintained a list of dates that the Butler Patrol Boat House reported levels over 99.4 feet — the current level — and dates when the levels returned to 98.84 feet or lower. The list includes eight separate occurrences from August 2017 through today.
Walker said one of his biggest points of confusion is how currently all lakefront owners and anyone with private launch access can still use the lakes in the Butler Chain.
Tim Bagwell, owner of Get Hooked Bait & Tackle in Ocoee who also does fishing charters, said he has been impacted financially by the ramp being closed.
Bagwell said he has experienced more than $20,000 in losses — and he’s not the only one.
“I have other captains I know who have lost everything,” he said. “People have built their life around this public ramp. I have people who crappie fish. They have done it only on this lake. They fish from December to February to stock their freezer for crappie. Sure, they can go elsewhere to catch three or four, but nothing produces like that fishery. So now what you have are people who could have fed their families who will have huge problems.”
However, Bagwell said the financial complications are only the start of the issues.
“It’s the fact that it has a private dock … the unreal number they are trying to get might never get there ever, but yet any boat can go out?” Bagwell questioned. “It would be more understanding if they told everyone on the lake you cannot go on it or yes they could versus everyone can go on it except the public.”
Bagwell said the ramps have never been closed in the past for where the water levels are at now, and Paul Solomon, a captain who grew up swimming in the lake more than 60 years ago, agreed.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and never seen anything like this,” Solomon said.
“What is going on?” Bagwell asked. “I have always been a rare person. God blesses me in life every day. My reason is to help. It’s sad seeing people lose everything. People can’t eat. Tourists can’t come visit. The town of Windermere and the hotels around are missing out.”
Walker said his hope is the county will remove the lake level benchmark of 98.84 feet and open the ramps.
“The county advisory of 2018 does far more to address the problems and applies to all boaters on the lake,” Walker said. “It is interesting to note that the level of 99.8 feet in September 2018 didn’t return to 98.84 feet until May 29, 2020. There is a police presence on the lake that can monitor boaters and issue summons. I would also like to see someone from the community and not a lakeshore owner on the Butler Chain of Lakes Advisory Board. The Butler Chain is a gift to all Floridians but is only available to the public when the ramps are open.”