Zoning Board Supports Changes To Preserve Areas At Wellington Green

This preserve area off Forest Hill Blvd. would be eliminated if the changes are approved.

Wellington’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board met late into the night on Wednesday, Aug. 14 to discuss a proposal that would shrink preserve areas near the Mall at Wellington Green in favor of additional apartments and a restaurant.

Representatives of developer Brefrank answered questions from the board, under the watchful eye of dozens of environmentally thinking citizens who wanted to know why the developer’s vision of Wellington includes more pavement and less room for trees and animals.

In the end, the board voted 5-2 to support the changes.

The residents, most of whom came out to oppose the change, sat quietly through the first two hours of the presentation on a comprehensive plan amendment and a master plan amendment for the two parcels.

The two parcels in question are tract W-3 and tract W-5.

Tract W-3 is a five-acre area located a half-mile west of the intersection of Forest Hill Blvd. and State Road 7, on the south side of Forest Hill Blvd. 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. In exchange, the developer will build a lake to assist in 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 multi-family 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.

Agents for the developer argued that the changes will enhance the area and serve the economic needs of Wellington today, noting that wildlife will adapt and any environmental impact from removing preserve areas will be lessened by off-site mitigation.

Village officials were prepared for the crowd with tables at the entryway with cards to fill out for those opposing or supporting the petition and extra seats available in the chambers.

Not everyone spoke. Instead, many wrote comments that were read by Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board Member Elizabeth Mariaca. In all, 18 residents went to the podium to speak.

Michael Deutsch spoke first.

“The impression I got sitting here tonight is that this is a slam dunk. You hear opposition, but the judgment of the staff is that this is a clean decision. They should just approve and go on to the next subject. But there was an important sentence [in the staff recommendation] that hasn’t been talked about,” Deutsch said. “Which are legitimate reasons and justifications occur on both sides. Tonight, we have heard the justification of one side. That sentence didn’t just walk into the statement by mistake. It was put there for a reason. I would think you would want to know from the staff what the legitimate reasons and justifications are for opposition for this petition.”

Village Attorney Laurie Cohen explained the standards that the village applies in land use considerations.

“The applicant has the burden to establish by competent substantial evidence that the standards for the land use decisions have been met,” Cohen said. “If they have met that burden, then the burden shifts to those seeking to deny the application to prove that the standards have not been met. So, you have heard evidence tonight that the standards have been met. If you hear evidence to the contrary, you are free to believe which evidence is more persuasive.”

Mark Hilton asked the board to put the environment above business interests.

“I’m absolutely sick and tired of watching green space, wetlands and conservation areas disappear,” he said. “I’m tired of losing green space, wetlands and conservation areas because some greedy developer wants to build.”

Hilton said that the existing conservation areas, which are said to have deteriorated, may not have deteriorated if the developers had tended to it properly over the last 20 years. He questioned if the new, smaller preserve area would actually be given the opportunity to thrive.

Longtime resident George Unger — a former member of the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board — also spoke in opposition to the change.

“I hear a lot of complaints about the condition of these wetlands, and that’s the responsibility of the people asking to get rid of them,” Unger said. “Why aren’t they maintaining it properly? Why didn’t they grade it properly? They have had 19 years to make it effective wetlands. Everything they say is wrong, and it means that the village was wrong in not enforcing the code.”

Anthony Picknell started a petition to oppose the change. He brought 1,700 signatures to give to the board to put into record in opposition of eliminating the preserve areas.

Resident Bruce Tumin made a video for the board to view.

“We are paving paradise and putting in a parking lot,” Tumin said as pictures of parking lots were showing on the screen. “Do we really need parking lots? Are we really going to get rid of 10 acres of trees?”

John Freeman urged the board to think of the wildlife.

“We talk about taking 23 acres and knocking it down to 9 acres for the wildlife to live in,” he said. “I would love to ask the builders to take a 2,300-square-foot home and live in house arrest for the rest of your life. Then after a little bit of time, instead of having a 2,300-square-foot home, now you are going to have a 900-square-foot home. That’s what’s going on with the wildlife.”

A few residents stood up to ask the board to approve the development, with comments focused on how the additional tax revenue would be good for the village, as well as the need for the more affordable housing offered by the proposed apartments.

After all the residents who wished to speak had a turn at the podium, a stack of comment cards were read into the record.

During the board’s final discussion on the issue, several board members expressed concerns about the proposal but noted that the role of the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board is not to set policy but to apply the rules and regulations as written. Both requests were approved 5-2 with Mariaca and Board Member Alan Shullman dissenting.

Decisions of the board are only advisory in nature. The developers will next head to the Wellington Village Council sometime in September for approval.