At a quasi-judicial hearing Wednesday evening, Wellington’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board denied an administrative appeal brought by members of the Jacobs family against the controversial Equestrian Village development.
Attorney Jeffery Bass, representing Charles and Kimberly Jacobs and Solar Sportsystems Inc., contended that Wellington staff members made errors in their interpretation of the code when the dressage facility at Equestrian Village was approved.
The complaint challenged the village’s interpretation of its land development regulations as it relates to the size and the height of the facility, which is located in the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District (EOZD).
As far as size, Bass asserted that the stables, viewing deck, seating area, vendor area and the covered area as a whole exceed a 20,000 square foot maximum found in the code. Regarding height, Bass argued that the covered arena is taller than the 25 feet allowed.
The hearing was the latest chapter in the two-year-long battle by the Jacobs family against the Equestrian Village project, which is located just down the road from the Jacobs’ Deeridge Farm.
The meeting began with a request by Bass to defer the hearing until September, which was refused. Then Wellington officials defended their interpretation of the code.
Attorney Claudio Riedi, representing Wellington, clarified aspects of the appeal. Wellington Growth Management Director Robert Basehart served as the village’s primary witness.
According to the code, “The gross floor area of any single commercial use shall not exceed 20,000 square feet, including indoor storage, administrative offices and similar areas.”
While the applicants interpreted the equestrian arena as a single structure with a floor area of 80,400 square feet, the village did not interpret that portion of the code to apply to the arena as a single structure.
“It is our interpretation that what the code attempts to limit in commercial recreation areas in the EOZD is big box retail activity, not stables,” Basehart said. “If your interpretation were to prevail, you couldn’t have the International Polo Club and you couldn’t have the show grounds, because all of those facilities would dramatically exceed the limit as well, so there wouldn’t be an equestrian industry in Wellington.”
Regarding building height, the village’s interpretation allowed a maximum roof height of 35 feet in the EOZD.
“By definition, in the code, the height of a flat-roofed building is measured from the ground to the roof deck. In a pitched-roof building, the height of the roof is measured to the midpoint between the midline and the ridgeline of the roof,” Basehart said. “There’s a provision in the code that basically says that where there’s a conflict between provisions of the EOZD and other portions of the code, the provisions in the EOZD shall govern.”
Kimberly Jacobs was brought as a witness and explained her grievances.
“It is not for me to conclude what the remedy is here,” she said. “I have lodged a complaint and said that I feel that part of this, or the entirety of it, is not within code and was not done to specifications, and that is the basis of my lawsuit.”
Daniel Rosenbaum, attorney for Equestrian Village owners Wellington Equestrian Partners, challenged that assertion. “In your complaint, did you not ask that the Equestrian Village project be torn down?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
Rosenbaum dismissed the central elements of the appeal as redundant. “There’s no issue about the floor area,” he said. “The floor area is really clear and the definition is really clear. Having a fence around a general area is not an enclosure, it’s not a wall. This is what staff does; they interpret these things. We’re just rehashing the past in another environment.”
Most board members were not receptive to the arguments put forward by Bass on behalf of the Jacobs family.
“I don’t think Wellington can take much more of this infighting. It’s damaging to the town’s reputation,” Board Member Michael Drahos said. “I’ve watched the town over the last two years basically been torn apart over Equestrian Village. This appeal, I understand, is the first of its kind, and we all should be troubled by that. I hope it’s the last of its kind. This is a tool that can be used and abused.”
Board Member George Unger was willing to give village staff latitude on the issue. “Since the presumption is that staff is correct, unless someone really convinces me they’re not, I’d have to go along with my colleague,” he said.
However, Unger requested to add to the final motion that the square footage of barns be changed to count the aisles, since it currently isn’t counted.
“The current legislative body approved the equestrian center,” Board Member Kenneth Koop added. “It’s Mr. Basehart’s legal authority to interpret as such. I didn’t hear anything tonight that was contrary to that interpretation. I heard a lot of discussion about how to define each of these words that we just talked about, and I think his interpretation was right on the money.”
Board Member Elizabeth Marciaca agreed. “This is a slippery slope,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think that if we rule in favor of your position, that essentially, we are giving the green light for any resident to bring to this board untold grievances against untold property owners.”
Board Member Paul Adams noted that the entire argument is going to play out in court, no matter what Wednesday’s outcome. “I understand it’s going to court anyhow, but I find no competent evidence other than opinions from the other side that our opinion was wrong,” he said.
However, Board Chair Carol Coleman was not ready to give village staff a pass. She asked whether or not the structures had been properly measured to begin with. “I would question whether or not aisles had been counted in the Village of Wellington prior to 2012 by Mr. Basehart,” she said. “To me, the aisle is a hallway for the horse. On those two counts, the height, and also the structures of the stables, which I consider to be commercial since they are collecting money for the purchase of those stalls… I then have to disagree with the interpretation by Mr. Basehart.”
In the end, the board rejected the appeal 5-1 with Coleman dissenting.
ABOVE: The Van Kampen Arena at Equestrian Village.