After almost six years of litigation, Mark Bellissimo and his firm Wellington Equestrian Partners celebrated a major court victory last week, prevailing in a lawsuit that sought to have the Equestrian Village site at the corner of South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road, home of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, torn down.
Brought by members of the Jacobs family, owners of nearby Deeridge Farms, and their company Solar Sportsystems Inc., the plaintiffs argued that the existing project should never have been built.
After 10 days of trial, it took a six-person jury less than two hours of deliberations to reach a unanimous verdict in support of defendant Wellington Equestrian Partners and its subsidiary entities, Bellissimo said.
“The primary goal of the Jacobses was to actually tear down the venue,” Bellissimo told the Town-Crier on Wednesday. “That was their testimony, to… restore it to polo fields. Their approach was not appropriate, but the bottom line is that we won overwhelmingly.”
Bellissimo asserted that the plaintiffs’ tactic consisted of mischaracterizations and obstructionism that was largely shot down quickly. “I think it speaks volumes to this sort of approach, which consumed six years of our time and benefit by trying to stop something and be disruptive,” he said. “I am hopeful that we can have mature dialogues about the future of this community, and dressage and polo and jumping are important elements of that.”
Bellissimo added that the decision opens great opportunities for Wellington Equestrian Partners and its show production entity, Equestrian Sport Productions, to enhance dressage locally.
“There has been a lot of uncertainty created in the market, so people were not clear on what the future direction would be and whether it would be a ruling that would have created a disconnect for the future, but I’m certain that uncertainty has been removed,” he said.
Bellissimo added that the decision would give people more confidence in buying property and make investments that are important to the future success of the equestrian community.
“These lawsuits create no value to anyone but the lawyers,” he said. “I think it was very clear that their approach was not accurate. I’m very pleased with the outcome. I believe it was appropriate. I believe it was just a tactic to stall and delay and disrupt. I think the court spoke very loudly that this approach was incorrect.”
The verdict, which consisted of 21 specific questions posed to the jury, rejected the arguments presented by the Jacobs family and Solar Sportsystems. The judge still has to make some legal rulings that will affect the final judgment, Bellissimo said, but the jury’s findings of fact on the 21 issues provide the foundation for the judge’s final rulings.
The lawsuit sought to have the Equestrian Village site torn down in its entirety and to have the property restored to only polo fields. In addition, the plaintiffs sought a declaration that would put the Equestrian Village property under the governance of the Palm Beach Polo & Country Club Property Owners’ Association (POA) and to prevent future commercial and retail development of the property, Bellissimo explained.
The plaintiffs argued that the POA has a development plan that locked the land into being only polo fields forever with infrequent use, and that the Equestrian Village project unreasonably impaired that scheme of development. The jury returned a verdict finding that Equestrian Village is not an impairment to the POA’s scheme of development, Bellissimo said.
The plaintiffs also sought to block any future commercial and retail development on the Equestrian Village property, including a hotel, claiming that such uses would be contrary to the scheme of development of the POA. Testimony was given at trial, however, that the Polo Club had a 180-unit hotel resort program, which ran until shortly after developer Glenn Straub bought the club’s assets through a bankruptcy sale in 1993, Bellissimo noted.
The jury returned a verdict finding that the plan, announced by Wellington Equestrian Partners in 2011 for the development of Equestrian Village, which included a hotel, was not an impairment to the scheme of development of the POA.
In 2012, Wellington Equestrian Partners withdrew the plans for construction of a hotel, and the property has been operating exclusively as a horse show venue ever since. The jury also found that construction of any future hotel is speculative and contingent at this point. A hotel would require a series of zoning changes and other land development approvals by the Village of Wellington, Bellissimo said.
Although it was a party in the case, Solar Sportsystems did not show up to trial to testify about the claims it had alleged throughout the years of litigation. At the close of the plaintiffs’ case, prior to the jury deliberations, the court dismissed the claims brought by Solar Sportsystems due to its failure to be present at trial to testify as needed, Bellissimo said.
He also pointed out that the plaintiffs also claimed that the Equestrian Village property was within the jurisdiction of the POA despite the fact that the property, since at least 1995, has not been subject to assessments, notices or voting rights of the POA. In fact, Bellissimo said, in 1995, amended bylaws for the POA were recorded that removed the Equestrian Village land from POA governance.
The jury found that the plaintiffs were on notice or should have known that the 1995 amendments to the bylaws intended to remove the Equestrian Village land from the POA, Bellissimo said. The court also granted a directed verdict motion in favor of the Wellington Equestrian Partners entities, prior to the jury’s deliberations, finding that the validity of the 1995 amended bylaws cannot be challenged.
The Jacobs family has been challenging, and in litigation with, Wellington Equestrian Partners since 2006. Until 2007, members of the Jacobs family were major shareholders of Stadium Jumping, that company that operated the Winter Equestrian Festival before it was taken over by Wellington Equestrian Partners and Equestrian Sport Productions.
Bellissimo asserted that the more successful the Winter Equestrian Festival and Wellington’s equestrian economy has become, the more aggressive members of the Jacobs family have become to disrupt that success. In recent years, despite a non-compete tied to the 2007 settlement, the Jacobs family, in collaboration with Stadium Jumping’s Michael Morrissey, began applying for competitive shows in Wellington, which is contrary to the terms of the agreement, Bellissimo said. His company sued for breach of contract. As a defense, the Jacobs family countered with an antitrust suit.
At trial, Wellington Equestrian Partners argued that the real reason for the Jacobs family’s lawsuit was not to preserve polo fields but instead was to prevent the success of, and to interfere with, Wellington Equestrian Partners’ business under the guise of preservation, Bellissimo said.
With the long lawsuit behind them, Bellissimo said that Wellington Equestrian Partners is committed to Wellington’s prosperous future.
“I look forward to working with the Wellington Village Council to implement a strategy that returns Wellington to a leadership position as one of the world’s premier equestrian lifestyle destinations,” he said.