BY VICTOR CONNOR, PRESIDENT-ELECT
WELLINGTON CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
The Dark Ages refers to a period of economic decline, intellectual stagnation and war. Additionally, we all understand that consequences matter more than intentions. A well-known expression says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The new Wellington Village Council has turned directly down the path toward hell — the path of lasting economic decline for Wellington, economic stagnation and economic war. Regardless of their intentions, economic decline hurts everyone from the dry cleaner to the restaurant owner, gas station and jewelry shop.
Additionally, we understand that village staff morale is severely reduced as everyone from the business leaders to ordinary citizens can see the actions of “un-doing” are clearly wrong. The only ones who don’t seem to understand how distasteful these actions are, are John Greene, Bob Margolis and Matt Willhite.
Such heavy-handed government actions by the new council, ignoring its own staff and community leaders, is more reminiscent of old-style Soviet Union politics than representative democracy.
The latest council moves appear so distasteful that Vice Mayor Howard Coates, who originally opposed the Equestrian Village, had the courage to publicly admonish Mr. Greene for taking actions that appear to repay “political promises” after massive contributions of over $500,000 were injected into the recent election.
Right now the council is declaring items already built and completed with approved permits, as retroactively “un-approved” and potentially requiring the land be returned back to whatever it was before. Existing facilities will have to be torn down and destroyed. This is like Pebble Beach deciding it wants to un-approve the golf courses already built, or Wimbledon deciding it really doesn’t want tennis courts.
The Education Place, a private tutoring school, is now facing the same fate. Last December, after receiving all approvals from the village, they purchased an 8,000-square-foot home on 2.35 acres to use as their school. Now their permits are under review, and the school has to engage a legal team to fight to keep their existing approval.
Imagine for a moment you were getting ready to build a new facility — say, a medical school. Yet you see the previously favored industry is now un-favored by the new council, and they are reversing previously approved projects. As the CEO, are you going to invest and build in Wellington, knowing full well that at the drop of a lawsuit, the council will retroactively “un-approve” your already approved and completed building?
This is the kiss of death for Wellington’s future. Once a precedent is set that approved permits can be un-approved after completion, no business will invest in a community that retroactively un-approves previously approved projects and requiring returning the property to its previous use.
That is exactly what is happening to Wellington Equestrian Partners, the partnership that owns and operates the Winter Equestrian Festival. Over the past five years, they have poured over $30 million into improving the show grounds, making them more accessible, more appealing, and safer for both exhibitors and spectators. These investments make the facilities more permanent, providing greater long-term stability for Wellington.
As a result, the equestrian industry has grown, and local businesses in Wellington have benefited during very difficult economic times. It has been a benefit to all Wellington citizens and businesses. Philanthropy was also at a record level, as WEP’s Great Charity Challenge over the last three years pumped $2.7 million into the local community, which included $150,000 to Wellington school PTAs/PTOs, $125,000 to the Boys & Girls Club, and close to $80,000 to the Wellington Community Foundation.
Then came the village election. The first move was the revocation of the dressage portion of the Equestrian Village project. WEP opted to withdraw the controversial hotel and commercial portions. As candidates, all members of the council had openly said they supported the dressage/equestrian elements of the project but not the commercial. Wrong. Without the commercial elements, the council still voted 3-2 to gut the dressage project because a simple plat, typically a ministerial act, was late. The village was complicit in the delay. The council took no responsibility, ignored their own staff’s recommendation, and then rolled back the approval.
In October 2011, a master plan and conditional use for Palm Beach International Equestrian Center was recommended by the staff and approved by the village council. Now, on Tuesday, July 17, in an unprecedented move, the village is holding a hearing to undo what it previously approved primarily because one very wealthy woman doesn’t like the fact that there will be a road within 300 feet of her mansion.
The village apparently doesn’t trust its own staff as they have approved an initial $250,000 for outside counsel and engineers, all coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. Their rationale, misrepresentation by omission in the “history” portion of the application based on a 2001 suspension within the PUD (five years before WEP’s ownership). Their own staff couldn’t be trusted so they hired an external consultant. His finding: All applications within the PUD omitted that history. All were approved. Rolling back this approval is selective enforcement and damages the equestrian industry. The estimates of the costs of these lawsuits will be somewhere around $2 million in legal, consultant’s fees and staff time.
It’s Mr. Willhite’s position that either way, “the village is going to get sued.” There is a problem with Mr. Willhite’s logic. The village is trading lawsuits where they would most likely win (because the staff recommended and council approved and they are compliant with the law) with lawsuits where Mr. Coates and Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz believe they will most likely lose (stripping away rights on rarely used procedures on technicalities). The cost to the village will be much higher to defend. Their political allies’ legal costs get minimized or disappear and the village taxpayers and WEP get stuck with higher bills. Not responsible or representative government. Kudos to Mr. Coates for standing up for good government over political cronyism.
With a village budget that has dropped from $125 million just four years ago to $75 million today, the village is operating as leanly as possible. So where does the $2 million come from? It has to come from somewhere — do they take it out of Parks & Recreation? Do they take it out of Engineering? Do you close the parks earlier, maintain them less, or let maintenance on the water and sewer treatment facility decline?
Life is about choices. To buy one thing, we often give up something else. The council must decide if undoing previously completed projects and tearing them down is a better use of taxpayer money than keeping parks open, maintaining utilities or setting aside reserve funds for hurricanes and other disasters.
Intellectual stagnation. The more time the council spends on second guessing past councils, and the more time they try to get “do-overs,” the less time to look at how to improve Wellington, how to help the businesses of Wellington create more jobs and prosperity. We know what the council is against — the expansion of equestrian facilities and the expansion of the medial arts district. Right now there is a doctor’s imaging office trying to expand its technology and bring in more advanced imaging systems. The permit has been under consideration for 90 days with lots of talk but no action.
Finally, war. The council has effectively declared full-frontal attack on the equestrian and medical industries. While they say they support both, they move backward instead of forward; they look to village staff errors from 2001 as rationale for undoing the already done. They don’t seek to build, but instead to destroy and dismantle.
In a recent appearance before the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, both Mr. Margolis and Mr. Willhite never once mentioned the equestrian industry in discussing Wellington’s economic strength. Was this an oversight or an unintentional slip demonstrating their disdain for the equestrian industry?
In the end, consequences matter more than intentions. Whatever their intentions, the consequence is that we all lose. The mayor says Wellington should be a bedroom community. The bedroom is used for two things — sleeping and something else. Something else is what the business community, the whole community, is getting from this council.