The Wellington Village Council approved four resolutions Tuesday related to the paving of part of the Saddle Trail Park neighborhood over the objections from residents of nearby neighborhoods that the project would negatively affect them.
The project was initiated by residents in the southern half of Saddle Trail who were willing to pay an assessment to have paving and municipal water service in their community.
The first two resolutions granted joint ownership of roadways in the Acme Improvement District to the village in order to protect both entities from possible lawsuits.
Village Manager Paul Schofield said that after Wellington incorporated, the Acme Improvement District became dependent to the village. Despite that, Schofield pointed out that it is a special taxing district created by the state and has powers that the village does not.
“What we’re doing here is in light of some of the questions raised in the process of Saddle Trail,” Schofield said. “Wellington can operate and maintain roads. So does Acme. What we are doing is for those certain Acme roadways, this places them in joint ownership with Wellington so that whatever questions might exist in anybody’s mind, those are eliminated and removed. We don’t believe that this is necessary. This is something being done in an abundance of caution.”
Schofield added that the council also sits as the Acme board and that agenda items are labeled as such.
Councilman Matt Willhite asked why the issue was coming up now, and Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said arguments were raised that the village did not have the authority to use the assessment method it had chosen because the roads in question were owned by Acme and not the village.
“We don’t believe that it’s an issue. We looked at it. We don’t think that there’s any reason why we can’t do the assessment in the way that we’re doing it,” Cohen said. “But in an abundance of caution, there’s no downside to convey the roads.”
Willhite asked whether the resolutions would limit the powers of Acme, and Cohen said it would give the council more flexibility.
“You’re not applying different rules when sitting as Acme or the village,” she said. “There are certain things you can do as Acme or as the village.”
During public comment, Gary Charboneau of Saddle Trail spoke in favor of all three items on the agenda, including a special assessment notice of intent for Saddle Trail residents, and a notice of a public hearing on the assessment.
“I urge you to approve those three items, moving the project on to its next required approval,” Charboneau said. “I’m also here to thank you and village staff for their assistance in bringing this project to this stage of approval. You were abundantly clear of what the hurdles would be.”
Houston Meigs of Rustic Ranches, a member of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee, which recently voted not to approve the Saddle Trail project, said he thought the resolutions validate arguments that have been raised by attorney and Saddle Trail resident Brad Biggs over the past year.
“You are now being asked to address those arguments,” Meigs said, adding that he felt the argument brings into question the validity of the petition submitted by Saddle Trail residents.
“My last point is that this is fundamentally a very bad project,” he said. “It is a project that is going to ultimately degrade the equestrian industry in Wellington.”
Michael Whitlow, also a member of the committee, said he thought the project would destroy a significant portion of the equestrian preserve to benefit a small handful of people.
Whitlow added that he was distressed that the council had ignored the vote by the Equestrian Preserve Committee not to approve the paving project.
“We are the experts,” he said. “We told you it was a bad thing, and yet you just go on and on. I think that this is the first step in ruining the equestrian preserve.”
Equestrian activist Cynthia Gardner asserted that the project will affect neighbors and horses in the surrounding area.
“The big impact here is not the hundred or so people who have, in fact, indicated they want their roads paved,” Gardner said. “The big impact here are the hundreds and hundreds of property owners in the equestrian preserve, the thousands of horses that stable in the surrounding areas and the show grounds.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said she respected Biggs and his opinions, but that the project is driven by a supermajority of residents in southern Saddle Trail. Gerwig pointed out that the existing shell rock roads are not for horses but cars.
“You have a trail system that runs through your neighborhood,” Gerwig said. “This neighborhood wants to have a trail system and a road right of way, and they made that choice overwhelmingly, and I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t want the dust. I also understand that it’s a huge amount of money. It’s not an easy decision.”
Willhite pointed out that Wellington requires a two-thirds vote for assessments, whereas many municipalities require only 50 percent plus one. He added that Saddle Trail residents were considering the value that would be added to their property, not only by eliminating dust but in having potable water and fire hydrants, which would probably reduce the cost of their home insurance.
Willhite pointed out that the horse trails in Saddle Trail are 15 feet, wider than the typical 12-foot trails, and he liked the idea of taking horses off of roadways. “If we can make that separation, [it will] make it safer for anyone riding a horse,” he said.
He added that Palm Beach Point is doing well with paved roads and equestrian trails with connectability to the show grounds.
“I think this council has taken a lot of equestrian issues to heart,” Willhite said, refuting allegations that the council has ignored the wishes of the Equestrian Preserve Committee. “I didn’t ask for this. It was brought to us. I’m only approving the wishes of the residents. It’s being paid for by the residents.”
Councilman John McGovern said he had not been on the council for the whole process, but that his first constituent call after being appointed had been from Biggs.
“I have gone back and asked staff to provide survey results and the discussions of the council so I could fully verse myself in what is going on with this issue,” he said, but he said he thought the issue at hand was to protect the village.
Vice Mayor John Greene said the important issue was that it was driven by a vast majority of residents in that community, and pointed out that final approval would be after another public hearing.
Mayor Bob Margolis agreed that 74 percent of the Saddle Trail residents had approved the project, and he would be insulted if he were in a community that had approved such a project and then had people from outside the community telling him that it was good or bad.
“You came to us, and we helped you vet the process,” Margolis said.
Greene made a motion to approve the road ownership resolutions, which carried 5-0. Resolutions to approve the intent to impose a special assessment and to set a public hearing for Tuesday, April 14 also passed 5-0.