Saddle Trail Project Moves Forward Despite Some Objections

Residents in part of Saddle Trail Park are a step closer to having paved roads and municipal water. Members of the Wellington Village Council gave unanimous approval Tuesday for village staff to pursue plans for the services.

“It’s a very large number [of property owners] supporting this item,” Councilman Matt Willhite said. “I think the burden now is on us to allow them to go forward with what they’re asking to do.”

In February, a group of residents from the southern portion of Saddle Trail Park — located south of Greenbriar Blvd. — asked the council to help the community by using a special assessment process to pay for the improvements.

The project calls for a 10- to 15-foot-wide bridle trail, paving the roads, reworking drainage swales and installing new potable water pipelines and fire hydrants throughout the area.

Council members agreed to do a formal poll of the community to see if the project has support.

“We sent out a ballot to each of the residents in the area and held a public meeting,” Village Engineer Bill Riebe said.

Riebe said there were 80 votes (76.2 percent) in support, nine votes (8.6 percent) against and 16 parcels (15.2 percent) that did not respond.

“It was made clear that if you didn’t return your ballot, it was going to be considered a no vote,” he said. “We really wanted to gauge the level of interest and be sure there was support for the project.”

The formal poll allowed for one vote per plotted lot, meaning some homeowners were allowed more than one vote. According to the staff report, there are 67 property owners among the 105 lots. Forty-eight owners (72 percent) supported the project, seven (10 percent) were against it, and 12 owners (18 percent) did not respond.

Wellington requires a two-thirds majority to approve such projects. The poll showed that the project has sufficient support, Riebe said.

“This measure tonight authorizes staff to begin the process to procure engineering design services for the proposed improvement project,” Riebe said, adding that the process would take 75 to 90 days.

Council members will ultimately choose the engineering firm to do the work. The roughly $10 million cost, including both construction and financing, would be bonded out by Wellington and paid back by Saddle Trail residents in a special assessment.

Riebe said the average cost per lot for the total project will be about $61,000 before interest. Payment would be based on acreage and vary by individual homeowner.

Councilwoman Anne Gerwig asked for clarification. “Is the cost based on acreage or lot?” she asked.

Riebe said currently the costs were based on acreage but it could be changed if the council wanted. “We just wanted to give them a preliminary idea of what the costs would be,” he said.

Gerwig also asked staff to research legal requirements for water usage. “I believe that once water is provided, you’re required to use it,” she said.

Riebe said residents would have to connect to the municipal water. “They will get a meter set and will have a base monthly charge, but we can’t force anyone to use the water,” he explained.

Vice Mayor John Greene expressed concern about the footing for horse crossings. Riebe said it would likely be scarified asphalt, which is roughened to provide traction for the horses.

“Some of those details are yet to be determined,” he said. “We’re going to have neighborhood meetings to [determine] some of those solutions.”

Greene then asked what the major concerns were for those opposed to the project. Riebe said they varied. “Some people just don’t want the additional expense,” he said. “Some people have lived in the area for a long time. When they moved in, it was rural, and they like it.”

During public comment, residents were split. Those who supported the project said it would help settle dust and prevent breathing issues, as well as help prevent speeding. Opponents were largely concerned with safety issues stemming from paving the roads.

Richard Schechter, a 17-year resident of Appaloosa Trail, said he supports the project, especially bringing in fire hydrants and other safety measures. “I think this is desperately needed, and I’m enormously in favor of it,” he said. “I think a neighborhood that doesn’t have any fire protection, with 1,000 horses and all the people, is very dangerous.”

Equestrian Preserve Committee Member Linda Elie, who lives in the other portion of Saddle Trail, said that many of the owners who voted in favor of the project are not year-round residents.

“They are not here in the summer and not here when a Tropical Storm Isaac 100-year storm comes through,” she said. “Sometimes the only place you have to exercise horses during times like that is on the roads. The bridle trails are under water, the riding arenas are under water, there’s no other place to do it.”

Further, she said, pavement can cause horses to slip and fall. Because bridle paths are only on one side of the road, many horses would have to cross pavement to reach them. “Falling on concrete is a higher risk for both rider and horse,” she said.

Resident Diane Bostwick agreed. “Most of the people who promoted this are relatively new residents,” she said. “Those of us who have been here year-round have seen the dangers of asphalt. And asphalt isn’t going to slow down traffic.”

Kelly Sachs said she doesn’t see a problem with the trails. “I ride them all year round,” she said. “If it’s raining or bad weather, I give my horses a couple of days off.”

She said that although she was initially against paving, the dust kicked up from the road has caused breathing problems in her family. “We’re all so sick all the time because of the dust,” Sachs said. “That’s really the mitigating factor for me.”

Margaret Newman-Biggs said that opponents of the project are largely against the road paving. “If you want to compromise and just provide water, you may get a better opinion,” she said.

She asked that Wellington poll the riders in Saddle Trail, not homeowners, many of whom she said simply rent out their barns.

“This is being done by people who are quite wealthy,” Newman-Biggs said. “Because they own a lot of land in our neighborhood, they had a lot more votes. Their votes counted more.”

Council members said that although they understood residents’ concerns, they wanted to move forward to get more concrete information.

“We’ll find out through the process if it’s going to be beneficial,” Willhite said, noting that the vote that night would allow staff only to move forward in the process, not authorize any construction.

Gerwig said she sympathizes with opponents of the project, but thought she had to listen to the majority of residents.

“I understand completely people who bought in a neighborhood with the intention of it staying the same,” she said. “Our standard has been two-thirds, and I have to fall back to that for these types of improvements. It has been presented to me that this is an acceptable solution. If it’s wanted by the residents, I want it, too.”