Wellington’s controversial K-Park parcel on State Road 7 will remain designated for a park, or at least open space, until the village conducts workshops to hear residents’ ideas on what they want to see at the site.
A record number of residents attending Tuesday’s meeting overflowed from the Wellington Municipal Complex council chambers on Tuesday as six presenters made their best pitch to develop the vacant 65-acre site and three council members debated its future.
The residents’ apparent favorite, Wellington Garden Partners, received several ovations during its presentation, although it did not receive a high ranking from council members, which ranked the Bainbridge-Brefrank proposal first, followed by Divosta, Stiles and Wellington Gardens, with Reinvent America and Lennar tied for fifth.
Many residents, especially those in nearby developments, pleaded for the site to remain a park, saying that they did not want the additional traffic and five-story buildings near their homes.
As in an earlier meeting where the rankings were made, only three council members were on the dais. Councilwoman Anne Gerwig had recused herself under a Commission on Ethics finding of a possible conflict of interest. Meanwhile, former Councilman Howard Coates resigned two weeks ago in preparation to accept an appointment as a judge on the 15th Judicial Circuit Court, and although his replacement, attorney John McGovern, had been selected earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, he will not be sworn in until next month.
About 40 residents spoke during public comment.
Rick Greene of Olympia, who is director of development services for the City of West Palm Beach, was the village’s capital projects director when the Wellington Municipal Complex was built and served as vice president for two of the proposers, said he shared some of the residents’ concerns about the Bainbridge proposal for 780 residential units.
“That’s a great amount of development, and my concern also is that the project seems like it is turned inward toward the lake, and you have surface parking on both State Road 7 and Stribling Way,” Greene said. “I think the site plan, if you choose to go that route, could be enhanced by trying to eliminate the eyesore by eliminating all that surface parking along the perimeter.”
He added that the Divosta plan has merit, but on a less dense scale than what they had proposed.
“As a resident walking to this site, my first thought would be what would be of greatest interest to me and my family,” he said. “When I look at that, I look at the Wellington Gardens proposal.”
Greene said he was concerned about a proposed gas station on the corner. “I think at that prominent intersection of Stribling and State Road 7, an entry feature of some significance should be built there,” he said. “All in all, I think with the botanical gardens, the mix of uses, this is a project I would like to come visit.”
Former Mayor Tom Wenham asked for a referendum to see what the citizens want.
“Many years ago, we bought this 70-acre parcel,” Wenham said. “Mayor Margolis was on the council when we bought it. It was bought for parks and recreational use. Every presentation we have seen this evening, there’s a lot of single-family, there’s apartments, and that means children — and one thing that we have prided this community on is the amount of parks and recreation and open space that we provide for our children.”
Wenham pointed out that during negotiations regarding the Binks Forest Golf Club, the council put a restrictive covenant on the site to protect it from future development.
“We have heard some great presentations this evening; they all did a good job,” he said. “I recommend to this council that you, the three of you at this point in time, put a restrictive covenant on this 70 acres of land that we own, that the residents of this community will vote to sell this land.”
Clarence Odom of the nearby Castellina community, said he and his family moved there from an area south of Wellington that had declined due to development.
“The community had nice families and schools, and then the developers came in and built the large developments, the shops and hotels and apartments,” Odom said. “It drove our property values down, it created such gridlock in our community to the point where we could not get out of our development.”
Odom said he lives along Stribling Way, which he said is already busy and will be more so if the site is developed.
“There’s no way that Stribling can handle the amount of traffic that’s going on right now,” he said. “Bring in apartments and hotels and development, it’s just going to drive us down. It’s going to make a more transient community as opposed to residents who are vested in Wellington.”
Antoinette Starace-Garza, also of Castellina, said Stribling Way is her alarm clock every morning.
“It’s a speedway, and my son fights for his life just to get on the bus on Stribling, and to consider even widening it would be very dangerous,” she said. “Shame on you guys for considering 780 apartments.”
Jim Grice said he moved to Wellington in 1981, when State Road 7 was a two-lane road. “It now is about 10,” Grice said. “I’m a little offended by that.”
He spent two years on the county’s Conservation Land Acquisition Committee.
“We diligently sought to preserve property along SR 7, but I’ve watched it erode from Okeechobee all the way down to where we are now,” Grice said. “I was thrilled we got a mall. We certainly needed that, but look at all the vacancies we have along the road now, all these buildings — they’re an eyesore.”
During council deliberation, Vice Mayor John Greene said Wellington Gardens had been his first choice but was concerned that only three council members would be making the decision.
“I think [Wellington Gardens] fits what is best for and what is missing in this community,” Greene said. “That being said, regardless of what I liked or didn’t like, what’s most important to me is the process that we follow. We have 40 percent of the elected officials that you guys put into this office not able to participate in this process. I think that is wrong.”
Greene said he would prefer to postpone the vote until McGovern is settled in on the council, and possibly short-list the applicants, which would likely eliminate Gerwig’s conflict of interest.
“I think we have a pretty good sense of what the community wants,” he said.
Councilman Matt Willhite said that in his seven years on the council, he has seen the deliberations over the site move from a Palm Beach State College campus to a horse park to the current proposals.
“There has been many ideas of what should go on this piece of property other than what its original purchase thought process was at the time, that Wellington needed more park space,” Willhite said.
He explained that the village has a self-imposed goal of one acre of park space per 1,000 residents, which it has met, and the problem with a park at K-Park would be dealing with residents’ concerns about lighting the athletic fields, baseball going on until 10 p.m. and the accompanying traffic.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to make everyone happy about what goes on this property, other than to say, ‘Let’s leave it as a farm right now,” Willhite said. “But we’ve had concerns with that, as well.”
Willhite also pointed out that there had always been agreement that the front portion of the property would have commercial uses on it. It was also agreed to put out a nationwide request for proposals, adding that all the proposals were conceptual.
“Any one of these plans that we talk about, like or dislike, is probably going to change,” he said. “This is probably going to be a three-month process of negotiating a deal, and then it’s going to go through probably at least five public hearings that every one of you will be invited to.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said he would prefer to leave the site the way it is for now and hold workshops with residents to get their input.
“This is a simple process for me,” Margolis said. “I heard everything you said and just because we voted on this project doesn’t mean we’re voting here today to move forward. I voted a long time ago to keep this as park space and was adamant about this. I moved my family here for the parks and recreation that it had, and the open space.”
Margolis made a motion for K-Park to remain a park for now, although he was not opposed to community meetings to see what residents want there. His motion was seconded by Willhite and carried 2-1, with Greene opposed.