After nearly 15 hours of debate and deliberation Tuesday over the status of the approved master plan governing the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, members of the Wellington Village Council decided unanimously not to rehear the item.
Council members found that there had been no deliberate omission of information by the applicant, Wellington Equestrian Partners, when the item came before the former council last October.
“We have to find whether there was a deliberate error,” Vice Mayor Howard Coates said. “We are obligated to go by what the evidence states.”
The council met Tuesday morning 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.
The controversial amendment 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.
Also approved with the master plan was a decision to permanently designate the site a commercial equestrian arena, which allows horse shows to be held there without the need for a new permit each year.
Before discussion took place Tuesday, Wellington Equestrian Partners’ attorney Dan Rosenbaum asked for the hearing to be postponed. “For six weeks, we have had public records requests in to the village,” he said. “The request was voluminous, but it was not complied with.”
Rosenbaum noted that hired attorney Claudio Riedi, who was representing Wellington, had open access to the records. “The path you’re about to embark on has tremendous ramifications to my client,” Rosenbaum said.
He pointed out that many records dating back to the creation of the plat were not available, and that the village’s e-mail records only went back to 2003. “If we’re going to go back to a 2001 resolution, it puts us at an inherent disadvantage in terms of defending this matter,” Rosenbaum said.
Furthermore, he said that hundreds of pages of documents had been sent to him Sunday night.
But attorney Barbara Alterman, who was serving as the village attorney, said that staff had provided all available records.
“The technology only allows them to access e-mails dating back to 2003,” she said. “Staff has said that they have provided everything that they can possibly access.”
Several council members felt that staff had done due diligence in providing records.
“Staff is saying that they have submitted all pertinent and available information,” Councilman Matt Willhite said. “If you made a request for [a record] and there was nothing, then we couldn’t provide it to you.”
Coates agreed. “I want to be fair,” he said. “But I don’t see the point in a 30-day extension if staff is telling me that they have given you all the records they have.”
Discussion of the item went on until almost midnight, with both sides arguing over two key points. The first was whether the applicant deliberately omitted parts of the site’s history — chief among them a 2001 suspension of development on the site.
The other point of contention was whether master plan amendments approved by Wellington after 2001 automatically lifted that suspension.
Land planning engineer Michael Sexton, agent for the applicant, testified that the omission of the history had been an error on his part. “No one asked me to delete or omit anything,” he stressed.
Sexton said he had not heard that there was an issue until long after the master plan had been approved. Furthermore, he said he believed that a subsequent master plan amendment designating the site as commercial recreation lifted the suspension. “It was approved by the council,” Sexton said. “It met all the conditions for the suspension to be lifted.”
After site development was suspended in 2001, there were subsequent master plan amendments that could have lifted the suspension, Rosenbaum argued.
Wellington hired independent land planner Russell Scott, who reviewed the history of the site.
In 2008, there was an 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.
Scott’s review noted that only one application included the complete history of the properties.
During testimony, Scott noted that in December 2008, a master plan for a piece of property referred to as the “Polaski property” was approved by the council. Then in 2009, the “Grange property” was approved.
“Those were actions taken to modify the master plan and approved by the village council,” Scott said.
Coates asked Scott whether he thought the status of the suspension affected whether the omission was necessary to the application.
“If it wasn’t included, and the master plan turns out not to be suspended, then you’ve made an error, but it’s not so big an error; the master plan was still active,” he replied. “But, on the other hand, if it was suspended, the omission becomes much more significant.”
Scott pointed out that Wellington’s application requires a complete history, not giving applicants room to decide what parts are relevant, but said he felt that the status did not affect the omission.
“I don’t think whether it was determined at the time if the suspension was in effect should have had any effect to the inclusion [of the history],” he said.
Rosenbaum pointed out that the 2001 order of suspension said that subsequent approval of a master plan by the council could lift the suspension.
Reading the ordinance, he said that the suspension was in place “until the time that an application new or modified master plan approval is filed by the petitioner and approved by the village council.”
He asked Scott whether that could mean that the 2008 or 2009 master plan approvals lifted the suspension. “I believe that the language could be interpreted in that manner,” Scott said.
Former Mayor Darell Bowen, who was called in to testify, noted that last October, he had been made aware of the suspension, but that staff was conflicted over whether it was in effect.
“I was made aware of [the suspension] by staff,” he said. “I knew that some staff felt it had been removed by the prior amendments. But everyone seemed to agree that when we voted on it, that would take care of the suspension. It either had been or would be taken care of.”
Riedi asked if that meant lifting the suspension was dependent on the October master plan amendment, but Bowen said he didn’t believe so.
Rosenbaum said that there had not been any evidence of intent to deceive the council. “I don’t see how anyone could find any evidence from tonight’s hearing unless they believe [Sexton] to be a complete pathological liar,” he said.
Mayor Bob Margolis said he didn’t believe Sexton omitted the information deceitfully. “You have the utmost reputation in this community for being the best at what you do,” he said.
Willhite said he didn’t think there was any fraudulent deceit. “I think there was an omission of information,” he said. “But was it fraud, deceit or misrepresentation? I don’t think there was.”
Though council members all agreed that the information omitted should have been in the application, Coates said it was their legal responsibility to determine whether there was fraudulent misrepresentation.
To prove deceitful intent, he said, there would have to be evidence that the applicant had a desire to mislead the village and that the decision would rely on the omitted information. “There is simply no evidence of that, because the village knew about the suspension,” Coates said.
Coates pointed out that he, along with Willhite, voted against the master plan amendments last October.
“It would be very easy for me to use this as a way to revisit my decision,” he said, “but I can’t, in good conscience, do that.”
Willhite noted that he had concerns with parts of the master plan — such as roadway improvements and connections — but that could be governed with the site plan that still must be vetted by the council.
“I want to remind the applicant, that one of the conditions of approval of this master plan is that the site plan must be approved by the council,” he said.
Coates made a motion to rule that the council had found no evidence of deliberate misrepresentation. Willhite seconded the motion, which carried unanimously.
Margolis said he hoped the decision could bring the community back together.
“I think it’s time to heal,” he said.
Above: The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.