After months of discussion, debate and divisiveness, the Equestrian Preserve Element of Wellington’s revised comprehensive plan came before the Wellington Village Council on Tuesday, May 11.
The item won unanimous approval, but not before some more discussion, debate and divisiveness.
Speaking first at the public hearing was Jane Cleveland, chair of the Equestrian Preserve Committee, which advises the council on equestrian matters. Over the past year, the committee has debated wording issues in the comp plan with village staff.
“I have been here since 2016, and we have never had such trouble with passing any issue,” she said.
Cleveland noted that the committee began looking at the Equestrian Preserve Element last October, then again in January. The committee refused to approve the language on two different occasions, until an accommodation was ultimately reached.
“We are all riders our whole life. We have farms. Our whole lives revolve around these horses. The horse shows must be successful. We have increasing competition from other areas. We have to take it super seriously,” Cleveland said. “If the horse show falters, the dominoes fall. I take it extremely seriously. This industry is so important.”
She noted that a long-planned entrance lane into the show grounds has not been built over the 10 years it has been promised and asked the village to take action.
Other speakers were adamant that no roads should ever be widened within the Equestrian Preserve Area. Many worried about horses’ ability to cross safely at intersections or be ridden on paths alongside busy roadways. Others worried that should a road be widened, it could lead to upgrades in commercial zoning, thereby harming the area’s atmosphere. Still others complained about specific wording, such as the use of the word “element” in that section of the comp plan.
Wellington’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board, which reviewed the plan after the Equestrian Preserve Committee eventually approved it, voted to keep all roadways at two lanes maximum and forwarded that version to the council for final approval.
Widening some roadways had been included as an aspiration last October at the request of the venue operators. Show producers said at the time that it would make Wellington more attractive to show participants and attendees when compared to other competitive locations, such as Ocala.
Wellington’s Planning & Zoning Director Tim Stillings said that the Equestrian Preserve Element is an optional part of the state-required comprehensive plan, which is updated every 10 years.
The comp plan is the 30,000-foot view. It points a pathway of aspirations for the coming decades in Wellington. The three goals of the Equestrian Preserve Element are the preservation of the equestrian lifestyle, a multi-modal transportation network through the equestrian community and the success of the equestrian competition industry.
Councilman Michael Napoleone said that he was not at all surprised that the Equestrian Preserve Committee had encountered such challenges when considering the comp plan update. “Many people have very strong feelings,” he said.
Councilwoman Tanya Siskind was passionate at the meeting that there should be no four-lane roads anywhere in the Equestrian Preserve Area. “It seems like we are inviting an effort to four-lane some roads by putting it in the plan,” she said. “I don’t feel like four-lane roads and preserving our equestrian lifestyle go hand-in-hand.”
Councilman Michael Drahos said that decisions about roads would be made at a later date. “At some point, this council or another council will have to address [the roads], and tonight is not that night,” he said. “I don’t see where we benefit much from diving into the weeds…We can go back-and-forth on this all night long.”
Mayor Anne Gerwig pointed out that there are no current plans for road widenings in the area. However, traffic does remain an issue. “This is a tool to allow us to solve the problems at some future point,” she said.
Siskind said that wider roads will not solve the traffic issues specific to the Equestrian Preserve Area.
“Four-lane roads invite more traffic and speed,” she said. “If we list the possibility of wider roads, we should have other possibilities in there, like an additional horse show entrance.”
Many residents know about the promised turn lane that has been an open permit for nearly a decade. Each time the governor has declared a state of emergency, the permit has gotten an automatic extension.
Gerwig responded to the demands from Cleveland and others to get tougher on the show operators. “You say we trump you where you cannot take action, well the governor trumps us, and we cannot take action,” she said.
There was discussion about further wording, such as saying “nuisance,” when the measure was really addressing the prevention of manure disposal sites and what legally could be done and enforced to prevent such a facility that “no one wants one in their own neighborhood,” as some pointed out.
“I don’t think [the topic] should be in here because we can’t enforce it,” Napoleone said. “That’s bad drafting.”
On the topic of roads, Vice Mayor John McGovern reiterated that there are no plans for road widenings or manure transfer stations.
“Nothing in this says that we are four-laning a road,” he said. “Nothing in this says we’re putting in a transfer station. We are, in fact, not prepared to do any of those things. Likewise, we are not preventing them from ever being used to deal with challenges in the future.”
Drahos stressed that the comp plan is a very broad look at the future.
“Let’s resist the temptation to make this more than what it is for just tonight,” he said. “I’m not surprised that everyone has spent so much time on this matter. It is very emotional, and I’m not surprised that it took several meetings to reach language that everyone could agree on. The equestrian issues have always been the most passionate.”
He said that any actual changes would only be done with plenty of public input and public notice. “The five of us are going to make the best decision we can for all the community,” Drahos said.
The council thanked everyone for their input. The measure passed unanimously with the wording that there is the possibility that four-lane roadways might come in the future, should that be approved by the council.
Also reviewed by the council was the comp plan’s Mobility Element, which was far less controversial. No public comments were offered, and the council members posed no questions. The measure passed unanimously.
“I think we pretty much hashed this out in the first element we discussed, but honestly, for the record, mobility is something that affects all of us,” Gerwig said.