The Wellington Village Council will determine this month whether to revisit changes to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center property approved last October by the former council.
Current council members will hold a special public hearing at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, July 17 at the Wellington Municipal Complex to determine whether there was any misrepresentation during last year’s discussion of a master plan amendment for the Country Place PUD, of which the show grounds is a part.
But the owners of the show grounds have branded the hearing a “witch hunt” that could hamper economic growth.
The controversial amendment, approved last October, made several changes to the site, including the realignment of Equestrian Club Drive, the platting of Gene Mische Way and providing additional access points for Grand Prix Farms South, Gene Mische Way and from the planned Lake Worth Road extension through Peacock Pond.
“The master plan needed to be amended because it still showed Equestrian Club Drive aligned as it was before,” Director of Growth Management Bob Basehart told the Town-Crier on Tuesday. “And Gene Mische Way was physically there, but it was not on the master plan.”
A second item — a compatibility determination approved along with the master plan amendment — enabled the property to host the shows on a permanent basis, rather than by annual permit, Basehart said. The measure classified the site as a “commercial equestrian arena.”
Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis said that concern over the approvals stemmed from a 2001 resolution suspending development on the site, leading some council members to question whether the changes should have been approved at all.
Though he was not on the council last October, Margolis said that there is a concern over whether the suspension was revoked automatically when a new master plan was approved.
“It depends on whom you talk to,” he explained. “Some believe that the suspension had to be revoked before [the council] could vote on a master plan. Staff’s position was that it was revoked by approving the master plan.”
The hearing, referred to as a “5.1.15 hearing” after the provision in the code that permits it, will be held to decide whether there was misrepresentation on the application to the village, Basehart said.
“The provision says that if there is evidence that there may have been fraud or deceit, or information purposefully left out of an application, the council can revisit that application,” he said. “They can choose to reapprove it, approve it with modifications or revoke the original approval.”
In the case of the master plan amendment for the Country Place PUD, Margolis said information about the 2001 suspension of development had been left out of the application.
“Whether that was a misrepresentation on the applicant’s part, or on staff’s part, that’s what the hearing is about,” he said.
Wellington Equestrian Partners Managing Partner Mark Bellissimo told the Town-Crier that he was disappointed in the council’s decision to pursue the matter.
“It is extremely disappointing that the newly elected members of the village council continue to take actions that will hamper the economic growth and the future of Wellington,” he said. “In my opinion, instead of focusing on the numerous great opportunities for all of Wellington, they have chosen an ominous path of pursuing a witch hunt based on unfounded allegations of an improper permitting process, which will cost the village millions of dollars of unnecessary legal fees and consumption of thousands of hours of valuable village staff time.”
Basehart said this type of hearing could be brought about by staff or by council members. In this case, he said, council members were concerned that information had been omitted, adding that the council can call a hearing to investigate, but this time asked a consultant to examine the files and produce a report.
Wellington hired Russell Scott, a planner who once lived in the village but now works in Orlando, to review the facts.
Margolis said he wanted an independent viewpoint. “Staff is very close to this and will likely be called as witnesses,” he said. “I wanted an independent set of eyes guiding us through this process.”
In his review, released this month, Scott looked at the history of the PUD, including the suspension of development and subsequent master plan amendment approvals.
He noted that the 2001 resolution suspending development states that the suspension would be lifted if and when the council approved a new master plan. Scott also pointed out, however, that although several master plan amendments have been approved since then, the council never took action to officially revoke or address the suspension.
Master plan amendments listed in the review include a 2008 amendment to plat Southfields Phase II, located on the northeast corner of South Shore Blvd. and Lake Worth Road, as well as two other properties since 2008.
In the conclusion of his findings, Scott notes that other master plan amendments received approval without noting the 2001 suspension of the development order.
“It is clear,” he wrote, “that with the exception of [one application], no application submitted to the village for consideration of a master plan amendment for the Wellington Country Place PUD has completely and accurately documented the full history of county commission or village council actions. This includes applications to approve or modify the master plan, development order amendments or granting or denying extensions.”
But Scott still recommended that the village conduct the hearing “to determine whether there is evidence that the application [in question] contains misrepresentation, fraud, deceit or a deliberate error of omission.”
Basehart said that council members could review the evidence presented to them and decide whether to revisit the application. If they decide to revisit and revoke the application, Basehart said it could affect the road realignment and compatibility determination.
“The realignment could possibly be revoked, and the road would have to be put back as it was,” he said.
The commercial arena designation could also be modified. “It can’t exist as it is approved without the master plan amendment, but it could still survive with modifications,” Basehart said. “It would have to be revisited.”
Margolis said that no matter the results, he hopes everyone will approach the hearing with an open mind.
“This has never been done before,” he said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for everyone concerned. I’m hoping it will be an open-minded, independent process on all sides.”
But Bellissimo is worried that it could lead down a road that would be disastrous for Wellington’s economy.
“The end result will be a loss of job opportunities, a reduction in tax revenue and lost income for local businesses,” he said. “It must be left to one’s imagination as to why [council members] would conduct themselves this way.”
Above: The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.