With more than two dozen speakers supporting the measure, and just two opposed, the Wellington Village Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22 resulted in another unanimous vote to enact an ordinance to improve property maintenance standards in the community.
Wellington Planning, Zoning & Building Director Bob Basehart presented the measure developed to improve standards for grass maintenance of vacant, abandoned and unused properties, but also applying to developed properties and water bodies.
“This will affect every single private property owner in the village, not just golf courses, [and will] include village land,” said Basehart, who stressed that the ordinance is designed to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents, as well as property values.
Basehart explained that the ordinance codifies what has always been the village policy. Specifically, the ordinance modifies wording to clarify specific regulations for the control of excessive grass and weeds on developed land and in waterways, lakes and ponds.
The initiative has two objectives — to strengthen provisions for maintenance and prevent a property from having a negative impact on its neighbors, Basehart said.
Additionally, the new language seeks to clarify any duplications or ambiguities in the existing code.
“We want to make standards more uniform and clearer to understand… for the average landowner,” added Basehart, who explained that a table presents the information in an easy-to-follow format.
Properties less than a half-acre and golf courses must maintain the entire property at a six-inch height, with the exception of properly maintained, longer decorative grasses on golf courses shown on the approved plans for that golf course.
Basehart said the regulations will not affect operating golf courses, and nothing prevents new courses from being built or existing courses that submit a plan from redeveloping their grounds.
While the ordinance covers all land in the village, the boisterous number of residents who were present seemed primarily interested in Polo West, a disused golf course with infrequent maintenance that has become the unofficial poster-child of the measure.
Requiring vegetation on unused land be no more than six inches high for 120 feet around the buffer of the property, the new policy is an increase from the currently required 60 feet. The six-inch height is a rule the property apparently has not adhered to until just before the meeting.
“This applies to public and private land equally and applies to all land in the village,” Councilman John McGovern said. “It provides consistency, certainty and clarity so a landowner can understand it.”
Several residents spoke during the public comments period, including resident Glenn Jergensen. “Thank you for taking this on,” he said. “This has been a disgrace.”
David Pounds said that it was disheartening to back up to vacant land that is all overgrown, adding that all he wanted was for “the owner of the golf course to be a good neighbor.”
Lance Goodwin worried about the dead grass on the course being a fire hazard.
Mark Hilton urged the council to take action. “Something needs to be done,” he said. “The owner is responsible for everything that needs to be done [on the property].”
Attorney Alexander Domb, representing Polo West and its owner Glenn Staub, spoke against the measure.
“The problem is this: the developer owns land next to property owners’ land,” he said. “It isn’t their land. He spends millions maintaining property around the village. That is expensive.”
Domb suggested that the village is partly to blame for the situation.
“We asked to do other things [with the property] and were told ‘no.’ We ask [tonight] that golf courses be excluded from the definition of developed land,” he said. “Vacant land gets a different policy than unused land, and that is unfair.”
Property owner Straub took off his coat as he approached the podium.
“We take care of thousands of acres around the village,” he said. “A golf course is not a manicured front lawn.”
He said he was considering doing a “links” concept that has been in use for centuries wherein parts of the rough are allowed to grow tall.
Mayor Anne Gerwig had to ask the audience to maintain decorum amid disruptions from residents as Straub spoke.
“I can beat you in court, but I’d rather not over-react to grass,” Straub said.
He said it costs more than $1 million per year to maintain the golf course, and he has been doing it for many years.
“I’m not going to keep contributing,” Straub said. “If you pass the ordinance, I can open the course to the public for $3 to play golf. If you want me to over-react, just try me.”
Straub said he wanted to use the land to build a “downtown city” to the verbal dismay of the audience.
“I’m hoping we can work together and not be confrontational,” Gerwig said.
Councilman Michael Napoleone said none of this would be an issue if the property was being maintained.
“We have had rules and various changes to delay, for the simple reason that the landowner doesn’t want to go to the expense of maintaining the land,” he said. “When you own a piece of land, you have the responsibility of maintaining that land… Homeowners bought on a golf course, the landowner bought a golf course. If you don’t want a golf course, sell it to someone who does want one.”
Napoleone, an attorney, admonished Straub not to threaten the council and said that if the landowner was interested in working with the council, “The property would have been in compliance more than three days before the second reading.”
The final reading of the ordinance passed 5-0.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Village Manager Paul Schofield noted that Town Center public input meetings have been scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Village Park and Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Wellington Community Center. He invited the public to participate.
Schofield also responded to Gerwig’s comment about speeders in the village now that the equestrian season has begun.
“We have to do whatever we have to do to make people slow down,” she said.
Schofield said that he had talked with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. “You will be seeing increased compliance next week,” he remarked.
Additionally, Schofield said that federal employees experiencing hardships due to the current partial government shutdown should know that Wellington is waiving late fees on utilities and has a policy that no federal employee will have their service interrupted.