With input from equestrians, village leaders and staff, Wellington will again try to draft an equestrian master plan to guide future leaders toward preserving the equestrian community.
Members of the Wellington Village Council met Tuesday with Equestrian Preserve Committee members and village staff to have the first of many discussions about the future of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve.
“I’m trying to find the next step here, having the equestrian community play an integral part in deciding what it wants to look like,” Mayor Bob Margolis said. “Even though the council makes the final decision, we need help from the equestrian community.”
Council members directed staff to come back to both the committee and the council with additional information based on the work Wellington staff did with former County Commissioner Ken Adams several years ago.
“It’s the best work I’ve ever seen done on this issue,” Village Manager Paul Schofield said. “We’ll need to have another meeting with the committee and the council so you can get all the data.”
An equestrian master plan — a guide for the future of the Equestrian Preserve — has been long in the making for Wellington. Many councils have attempted it in the past, but warring factions within the equestrian community and eventual changes in elected officials have thwarted several attempts.
For more than a decade, Wellington’s equestrian community has operated under the rules of the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District (EOZD). Although it is not a comprehensive plan, it has helped regulate development.
Still, officials say more regulation — along with a unified vision for the equestrian community — is needed to prevent future conflict.
“There’s no issue more divisive and contentious in this village than issues dealing with the Equestrian Preserve,” Councilman Howard Coates said.
Councilman Matt Willhite agreed, noting that although the community was created because of its shared equestrian interests, it has also been divided because of them.
“We coexist because of the horse,” he said. “But we’ve allowed the economics of it to tear this village apart. This didn’t happen over the last two years.”
Wellington’s equestrian community sprang up with a growing industry, something Coates said has made creating a cohesive vision difficult.
“We never had a master plan that provides detail and guidance at a council level to help us make defensible decisions when we have to decide on an issue,” he said. “Sometimes we’re operating in the dark.”
Typically, master plans are drafted before development. With much of the space developed and in the hands of private owners — about 90 percent of the Equestrian Preserve is privately owned —Wellington’s efforts have been made more difficult by a lack of consensus in the community.
“We’ve never had consensus among equestrians on anything that has come before us,” Coates said. “It’s almost always split.”
Further complicating things is the private ownership factor, with land that often already has permitted development or other uses.
“Usually when you are drafting a master plan, you own the properties or have some kind of continuity,” Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said. “Because we have so many individual owners, I think we have to ask what we can put on a master plan at this point. We’re coming at this from the back side. It makes it very difficult that we don’t own the property ourselves.”
Although members of the council and the committee largely agreed that Wellington’s equestrian lifestyle needs to be protected, Wellington Projects Manager Mike O’Dell said they would have to decide what that means.
“Are you trying to preserve the venues? The land? Or is it the horses you’re trying to protect?” he asked.
One consensus was that Wellington’s bridle trails are essential for the community and need to be maintained. The only problem, O’Dell said, is that the majority of Wellington’s trails are located on roads and canals.
“Only about five miles of bridle paths are dedicated to the village,” he said. “The rest are along roadways and canals.”
Gerwig said maintaining and even expanding the bridle trails is important. “It benefits our more casual riders and the equestrian industry as a whole,” she said.
Equestrian Preserve Committee Chair Linda Elie agreed. “The more the Equestrian Preserve gets developed around, the more important the trail system is,” she said. “Even show people know their horse can’t live in a 10-foot-by-10-foot stall. They have to get their horses out on the trails or they go stir crazy.”
Coates said the balance between preservation and commercialization will be key. “How far do we allow commercialization to go?” he asked. “I think we are protecting the equestrian industry, not just the preserve. The industry exists because of the preserve, and has become the economic driver for this whole area. We have to decide if that’s what we want. Is the industry paramount, or do we want to give other considerations?”
Willhite said Wellington’s equestrian community can only grow so large.
“How can we continue to grow and build in an area that we’re talking about preserving?” he asked. “We can’t just keep growing.”
He noted that most of Wellington exists outside the equestrian industry, but the two support each other. “The industry isn’t just made up of the venues or the EOZD,” he said. “It’s the entire village.”
Margolis asked Schofield about the history of the preserve, whether it was created with the industry in mind. Schofield said the founders did not envision Wellington becoming an equestrian capital.
“There was never a conscious plan for horses to be in Wellington, but there were some communities — Saddle Trail and Paddock Park — where horses were intended to be,” he said. “I don’t think there was much thought other than that [Palm Beach Polo founder] Bill Ylvisaker wanted to play polo.”
Palm Beach Polo was built, and slowly the community began to spring up, initially in the form of large polo facilities.
In the 1970s, however, the area’s equestrian lots were not selling well. The development of what is now the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center sped that along, Schofield said.
What is now the hunter/jumper industry began as halftime entertainment on the Palm Beach Polo grass parking lot, Schofield said. “No one envisioned we’d have what we have today,” he said.
Schofield recommended that village gather much of the data that Adams and Wellington staff put together.
“My recommendation would be to instruct staff to put together a basic plan with the Ken Adams work from a couple of years back and distribute it to the committee and the council,” he said. “We want to get you looking at that data. I can tell you that we know a lot about where the horses are, when they’re here and who uses what. We can put a lot of stuff in front of you, but what we’re not going to know is whether it will work for the horses. I would love staff to have a collaborative effort with the equestrian community.”