A controversial request to develop land set aside for conservation along the outskirts of the Mall at Wellington Green will head to Wellington’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board for the first of several required approvals on Wednesday, Aug. 14.
At the meeting, agent Jennifer Vail of the Wantman Group is slated to petition the board for a new use request on behalf of property owner Brefrank Inc., which owns the two tracts of land.
Wellington’s Planning, Zoning & Building Director Bob Basehart explained that the conservation zoning was part of the original approvals for the mall, which pre-date Wellington’s control of the property.
“The mall project was originally approved by Palm Beach County,” Basehart told the Town-Crier. “After Wellington became incorporated, the village annexed in all of the approved plans that were approved by the county. Then it became Wellington’s approvals.”
Those approvals included several conservation areas.
“The master plan for the mall had about five or six preserve areas, or what we call conservation areas,” Basehart explained. “These were permitted through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. The U.S. Army Corps is not really interested in this site because the conservation areas do not connect to each other or other systems — what they call ‘lands or water of the state.’ The primary permitting agency for environmental issues is the South Florida Water Management District, in this case.”
This means that changing the conservation areas will require a two-step process.
“The two sites in question are on an approved master plan as conservation areas,” he said. “In order to change them or modify them, it’s necessary to get both Wellington approvals and approvals from the environmental agencies.”
Both approvals are being done concurrently.
“My understanding is they have conceptual approval or preliminary approval from the water management district for what they want to do,” Basehart said. “The matter will go to the SFWMD board sometime in August. They will have to comply with whatever that board does, in addition to anything that Wellington approves.”
The two properties in question are Tract W-3, which is eyed for additional commercial space, and Tract W-5, which the developer seeks for more residential use.
Tract W-3 is a five-acre area located along the south side of Forest Hill Blvd., about a half mile west of State Road 7. The petition asks to amend the zoning from conservation use to commercial use on the master plan.
Brefrank is proposing to build a restaurant on the five-acre tract, if the petition is approved. In exchange, they will build a lake to assist in the drainage for the shopping center.
Tract W-5 is a 17.46-acre parcel in the interior of the Wellington Green development, located a half-mile west of the intersection of State Road 7 and Lime Drive. The petition is asking to change the tract from conservation use to regional commercial and large-scale multiple use with 8.33 acres proposed for residential uses and 9.13 acres of wetland. This will effectively reduce the preserve by half and allow 185 additional apartment units on the property.
As part of the environmental process, the approval will be based on mitigation. The remaining preserve will be enhanced and rehabilitated and made to function better than it does now.
In addition, as part of the mitigation for both sites, Brefrank will pay money into an approved mitigation bank to be used to improve and expand already established environmentally protected areas. This way, there is no net loss environmentally when the development takes place.
How does Wellington staff weigh conservation and development to recommend approvals?
“Certainly, the environment is very important to us,” Basehart said. “It really comes down to balancing all of the interests; looking at it from one side without taking a side. The five-acre parcel is a piece of property that is deteriorating in condition of its habitat value over the years because it is completely surrounded by development. It’s completely isolated, its small and degraded in its quality.”
The larger parcel, Basehart said, has more that can be salvaged.
“The bigger parcel is [also] deteriorating and not functioning,” he said. “From an environmental point of view, half of the land that they are not taking out will be rehabilitated. The question becomes, is it more important to maintain it for whatever habitat remains there, or is it better to allow it to be developed and mitigation be done so that there is no net loss in the environmental quality for the region? Mitigation involves the payment of money to a mitigation bank, and that money is used to enhance and expand existing viable wetland preserves.”
The experts tend to look at this matter not through a local lens, but through a more regional one.
“The environmental agencies have taken the point that when you have small, isolated, relatively non-functioning areas of wetlands, it’s better to allow them to be eliminated and enhance a larger system,” Basehart said.
However, that is not necessarily the viewpoint of nearby residents, some of whom note that all this could have been foreseen when the original zoning was established and that the conservation areas should not have been allowed to become deteriorated.
Several people have organized to oppose Brefrank’s request, vowing to be at the Aug. 14 meeting of the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board, and subsequent meetings, to let their opposition be heard.
The Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board’s decision is advisory only, and the final decision rests with the Wellington Village Council, which is set to hear the requests in September.