The Wellington Village Council voted Tuesday, May 22 not to extend a condition of approval for the Equestrian Village master plan — putting in jeopardy the parts of the project approved in February by the previous council.
Council members tabled until next month a companion measure that would revoke the site’s commercial arena designation for its existing dressage facility, meaning that shows would need to be approved each season on a conditional use permit.
The master plan amendment changed the 96-acre site on the corner of South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road from a tennis and polo facility designation to a commercial recreation facility, as well as allowing several access points that have long been used but were never officially on the map.
But the council voted 3-2 to rescind the approval Tuesday, with Councilwoman Anne Gerwig and Vice Mayor Howard Coates dissenting.
Wellington Director of Growth Management Bob Basehart explained that when the measure was approved, it had seven conditions of approval. One of them was to plat the entire property by April 1. “That condition was not met,” Basehart said.
Because the property was not platted in time, the issue automatically goes before the council, he said.
“You’ve basically got four options,” Basehart said. “You can grant the extension to record the plat… modify or eliminate the approval condition, or you can rescind the project approval.”
Dan Rosenbaum, attorney for site owner Wellington Equestrian Partners, said that one of the problems was caused because Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz did not approve several documents in time to get the plat approved by the deadline.
“This isn’t a situation where the applicant violated the condition in an attempt to thwart the Village of Wellington,” he said.
Rosenbaum noted that his client was set back when the council tabled a resolution on Feb. 28 that would have re-platted the property as one 96-acre tract rather than two separate pieces of land.
Wellington’s bitterly fought election and its disputed outcome were also factors, Rosenbaum said, both because the controversial nature of the project stopped easier ways of handling the plat, and the weeks-long recount took up Kurtz’s time.
Rosenbaum said that his client attempted to rectify the matter in time.
“In order to fulfill the conditions,” he said, “the village has a role that they handle. Because something sidetracked the process, Mr. Kurtz was not able to finish a process that he said would take a matter of days. They took it from the March 13 agenda, and then we had an election issue.”
Rosenbaum said he spoke with Kurtz on March 27, concerned that the plat approval had not been placed on the agenda.
“At that time, I asked him what we were going to do about it,” he said, “and his response to me was ‘we’ll get an extension.’”
Kurtz said that he did not recall such a conversation. He said he may have spoken with Rosenbaum; however, he refuted claims that he promised an extension.
“I do not have the power to grant an extension of time,” he said, “and I would not have represented to you that I have that power.”
Rosenbaum said that when the process became sidetracked, it hindered his client.
“The applicant cannot move forward in the process if there is a problem,” he said. “Here, we had several problems. This was not something the applicant could do anything about because the item did not get placed on the agenda.”
Attorney John Shubin, representing the Jacobs family, currently involved in a lawsuit over the issue, said that there was plenty of time to formally request an extension.
“The client never sought an extension of time in writing from the council prior to April 1,” he said.
Several council members agreed that more could have been done by the applicant.
“If I knew a deadline was approaching,” Councilman Matt Willhite said, “I would have corresponded with council or staff. I would have thought that the applicant would be in front of us saying, ‘This deadline is closely approaching.’ I’ve been here the entire time, and at no time have I heard them come in front of me and say, ‘Is there something we can do?’”
Willhite, who noted that he opposed the master plan amendment the first time it came before the council, said that the deadline was clear. “You were willing to accept the time frame,” he said, “but you aren’t willing now to say that this was caused by some of your own fault.”
Wellington Equestrian Partners Managing Partner Mark Bellissimo said that once they got Kurtz’s approval on the property owners’ association documents on May 7, the plat was in three days later.
“We couldn’t present to council,” he said. “We had no ability to do that until we got approval on the POA documents.”
Bellissimo noted that if the master plan isn’t approved, the plat cannot be approved, and then nothing can be built on the site.
“That is an impact,” he said. “Despite the fact that everyone is so supportive of dressage, it would create a problem for us if the master plan is not approved.”
Mayor Bob Margolis and Councilman John Greene said the village should not bend the rules for one person.
“Once we start down this road of creating conditions and then changing the rules, it creates tremendous liability for us down the road,” Greene said, adding that he does not believe that the change will endanger dressage in Wellington. “I don’t believe this prohibits you from operating a dressage facility.”
Margolis pointed out that the previous council set the conditions.
“I’ve always been a big believer that there are rules and regulations,” he said. “While I may not agree with them, I cannot bend them for just a few people. It would be disingenuous for me to look at what the previous council voted for and say, ‘They didn’t really mean that.’”
Coates cautioned that the council should not set a precedent of being unyielding when it comes to the rules.
“There are always extenuating circumstances,” he said. “If that’s the direction we go, we’re setting a very dangerous precedent for this village.”
Coates also worried that the council was being used as a pawn to settle a dispute between warring sides.
“The reason we are locked in this position is because both sides have made a decision to take a scorched-earth approach,” he said. “No matter what the other side does, they are going to oppose it.”
He noted that the issue is in litigation and worried that not extending the applicant’s time could harm the dressage industry in Wellington.
“These are the type of brinkmanship actions that threaten to kill dressage in Wellington before it ever takes off,” Coates said. “That’s something that if we, as a council, allow to happen, it’s detrimental to all of Wellington. What we are risking here is jeopardizing a new equestrian industry coming in that has potential to create jobs and livelihood for Wellington residents, both equestrian and non-equestrian.”