After a meeting lasting more than four hours Wednesday, the Wellington Equestrian Preserve Committee recommended approval of five comprehensive plan and zoning text amendments that would create “floating districts” to allow hotels in the portion of the Equestrian Preserve Area that contains the International Polo Club Palm Beach property.
Senior Planner Cory Lyn Cramer explained that a floating zoning district would enable applicant Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, to make changes to the International Polo Club and adjacent Isla Carroll Farms property that would allow buildings of up to 56 feet and increase the density from 10 percent to 20 percent of the property by removing 72 acres from the Equestrian Preservation Area.
Cramer said the floating zoning districts would also allow any other property owners in EPA Subarea D to apply for similar variations, but they would have to go through the same process and meet certain eligibility criteria.
The petitions will go before the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board on Thursday, April 13 and the Wellington Village Council on Tuesday, April 25. Approval of the petition will require a supermajority of four votes on the council for it to pass, after which it would be transmitted to Tallahassee, where state agencies would have 60 days to consider the amendments before they come back to the council for final approval.
Cramer said the reason that floating zoning is not spot zoning is that it gives others the opportunity to apply, and individual review of the applications assures that an incompatible use will not be put in an area where it does not belong.
The application requests that the commercial and agricultural residential areas in the 72-acre area be rezoned to commercial recreation.
Committee Member Dr. Rachel Eidelman asked about increased traffic, and Cramer said the intent was the internal capture of some traffic by having uses including hotels and shopping on site so people could get out of their cars and walk.
“The intent of the applicant is to create a resort destination, thereby reducing traffic outside the zone, Cramer said.
Board Member Dr. Sergio Guerreiro said that makes better sense than a car going in and out of the EPA three or four times a day.
Attorney Dan Rosenbaum, representing the applicant, said the amendments would protect the Wellington economy by making the equestrian industry more sustainable.
Based on studies by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission that show an increased need for hotels, and with a total revenue generation of $200 million, only about 8 percent of the Winter Equestrian Festival participants and attendees (estimated at 125,000 bed nights) actually spend the night in Wellington.
“The general lack of lodging in Wellington causes participants to seek lodging in other areas of Palm Beach County,” Rosembaum said, explaining that with a relatively small number of equestrian families, the opportunity exists in Wellington to have a more powerful economic engine.
“The plan proposed will bring in millions of additional dollars and hundreds of jobs,” he said. “With various large equestrian venues in the EPA, the need exists now for onsite lodging.”
He added that hotels would also provide facilities in the summer to attract tourists and create jobs during the off season.
The total amount of land eligible for floating zoning is 640 acres.
Board Chair Jane Cleveland asked Bellissimo about other interests he has, including a large equestrian center in Tryon, N.C., and Bellissimo said that Wellington is still important to him because he lives here and the $300 million investment he has here is unprecedented.
“There is very little chance of our losing interest in that investment,” he said.
Attorney Matthew Chait, representing interested party Deeridge Farms, which opposes the petitions, said the applicant wants to dismantle the Equestrian Preserve Area and build hotels and condos in an area that specifically excludes them.
“Make no mistake, this application is the beginning of the end of the equestrian preserve,” Chait said, adding that Wellington voters in a recent referendum said they did not want hotels in the EPA. “That is now law in Wellington, and the applicant is ignoring the mandate.”
Attorney Janna Lhota, representing Mida Farms owner Victoria McCullough, said the petitions do not limit changes only to IPC, but open other areas in the EPA to change.
“This will change the character of the EPA,” Lhota said, encouraging the committee to slow down the process, which will transmit the application to the state in less than a month.
She added that the rezoning application before the committee does not include a master plan and suggested that the committee wait to consider the zoning until it has the master plan.
During public comment, several residents, including former Equestrian Preserve Committee members Michael Whitlow and Houston Meigs, spoke against the application.
Equestrian activist Victor Conner supported the change, explaining that approval would benefit the equestrian industry and all residents of Wellington.
After more deliberation, the committee approved all five petitions.