The Wellington Village Council discovered Tuesday, March 23 that sometimes not to decide is to decide. When faced with correcting a map error that once fixed could lead to the development of wetland parcels near the Mall at Wellington Green, the council decided to take no action, leaving the area’s master plan map unchanged.
The decision came after more than three hours of discussion, which included presentations by village staff, the developer and comments from dozens of residents, with public sentiment decidedly against the change.
The South Florida Water Management District apparently couldn’t agree on the matter either regarding the proper designated use of the land, deadlocking when it considered a related item.
It is the rematch of a matter last heard in 2019 that attracted lots of attention due to a single word with a deep meaning. That word is “conservation.” It’s printed on a map in the master plan document, and its message contradicts the words describing the map in the master plan, which has the final legal say.
Meeting records do not indicate any decision to add the word “conservation,” and the other land with the same legal zoning does not bear this written designation on the map. Yet it has stood unchallenged for nearly two decades.
The applicant, however, has researched the records and is adamant that the designation is a mistake and has a good case for potential litigation on its side. Matthew Barnes, senior project manager with the Wellington Green Master Property Owners’ Association, spoke on behalf of the change. “The inconsistencies need to be fixed because this will need to be heard and approved eventually,” he said.
Village staff has researched the forensic records and agreed that the applicant is correct, recommending that the designation be fixed to reflect what the plan says, stressing that the map change alone would not give the applicant any additional rights to develop the land. The wetlands would still need to be protected, and any change would have to come before the SFWMD and the council due to other conditions. According to village staff, the item on the agenda was essentially just correcting a typo.
But that “typo” is considered by many residents to be a lynchpin holding a dyke against a torrent of development that is waiting to descend upon the remaining green spaces around the mall.
According to Planning Director Tim Stillings, if the change is not made, no development can move forward. That word “conservation,” rightly or wrongly there, is creating just that.
To the developer, at issue is 17.62 acres of water reclamation area that is the wetlands of Parcel W-5. To several of the residents who spoke up, it is a surviving remnant of the Loxahatchee River Slough, which once encompassed the area.
Stillings said that his job was to research and follow the facts.
“The error was brought to staff’s attention by the applicant, the Wellington Green Master Property Owners’ Association, which wants to redevelop the land at the mall, and the area is also more obvious now with color laser printers, as the wetlands on many maps are green,” he said.
Yet even if it was an error, Stillings could not correct it himself. He had to follow the procedure of bringing it before the public and the council to determine what to do.
Councilman John McGovern was not happy that the council was being put in this position. “Why are we discussing this?” he asked. “I don’t see how it changes anything for us to do it or not do it.”
Councilman Michael Napoleone, however, wanted the matter corrected, now that it has been brought to light, for the sake of being correct. “I am a rule follower person. It needs to be made correct,” he said. “It is supposed to be a wetland [and protected as such], and I agree with that, but I have a problem with the mistake.”
Councilman Michael Drahos asked if dealing with the situation was necessary right now. “Why do we need to correct anything?” he asked.
Agents from the property owners said that a proposal is forthcoming for development of the property.
A number of concerned residents rose to speak on the topic, mostly against making the change.
Drew Martin of the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida said that it was their point of view that the word is not an error, and if it was, it should remain, since it has been that way for so long.
“This isn’t necessarily an error,” he said. “It is a correct designation.”
Martin said that making the change just invites the property owner to come forward with a plan to develop the wetlands.
“If you don’t approve it, that’s the end. If you do approve it, you’re going to make all the citizens come out again to make their voices heard. So, just go ahead and end it now,” Martin said. “Do the right thing!”
Debbie Evans pointed out there are cypress trees on the parcel in question.
“Cypress can live for hundreds of years, and I have seen them myself over 1,000 years old,” she said. “The conservation easements were agreed to in perpetuity. Anything you do that allows that to be diminished is wrong.”
Several speakers warned that the developers will try to wear down the residents over time with repeated efforts. Many were afraid that any action would open the door for the developer or future developers to come before the council for additional changes.
With the council trying to resolve the conundrum between what was right and what was good, the members were putting in the efforts of brainstorming strategies and discussing tactics to craft a decision. The council tried not to split the baby and to make the residents happy without stepping into potential litigation it may lose.
In the end, the council threw out the bathwater, but not the baby. They voted not to change the wording.
McGovern made a motion not to approve the change. It was seconded by Drahos and supported by Vice Mayor Tanya Siskind. Mayor Anne Gerwig and Napoleone dissented.