The Wellington Village Council postponed a vote Tuesday, Sept. 6 on moving forward with a plan to pave an approximately one-half-mile section of 50th Street South between Ousley Farms Road and South Road.
The project has been under discussion for more than a year. The council previously approved a plan of development for the project and directed that an engineering plan and a funding plan be drawn up.
Last year, Wellington responded to a landowners’ request to form a unit of development to serve about 119 acres, including Wellington Classic Estates on the south side of 50th Street and a 59-acre parcel on the north side. That started the ball rolling on the paving plan, which was to continue with this week’s approval of the engineer’s report.
However, equestrian developer Mark Bellissimo, the largest property owner along the roadway, questioned the fairness of the funding plan, as well as the accuracy of some of the numbers reflected in the engineer’s report. He owns the 59-acre parcel on the north side of the road.
The council first heard a presentation by attorney Ken Edwards with the law firm Caldwell Pacetti, a specialist in special district law. He explained the process that Wellington went through to create the engineering report, prepared by Tom Biggs of Mock Roos & Associates.
“Last year, you formed a unit of development called 50th Street through the Acme Improvement District,” Edwards said. “A plan of improvement was prepared at your direction, which included this engineer’s report.”
Notices were then provided to residents to provide comment on what is being proposed.
“Currently a dirt and shell rock road, a majority of residents on the road wanted it improved,” Edwards explained.
The report sets forth the number of acres and the cost of the construction, which includes drainage improvements and guardrails. While the cost of the work is estimated at $4.7 million, it will be funded through bonds, which raises the total cost.
“Using special assessments, there have to be a determination of benefits computed on an acre basis,” Edwards said, explaining that once the benefits were determined, they were divided by the 119 acres included in the unit of development.
“Determining benefits is more of an art than a process,” Edwards said. “It isn’t spelled out in [Florida Statutes] Chapter 298 how to do it.”
Biggs said that his report includes extensive documentation providing for the drainage and paving improvements.
“That part of the process is very objective,” he said. “Then we must determine how much this benefits the surrounding properties in terms of maintenance, access, drivability and the appreciation of property value.”
Those benefits are then attributed by acre, not by property owner.
“It is most appropriate to attribute it based on acreage,” Biggs said. “The majority of these types of projects are assessed on an acreage basis.”
Edwards agreed that this is the only way to make it work. “This type of special assessment has to be based on the land. It cannot be based on the individual ownership,” he said. “You don’t have a different methodology. It has to be done on a computed acre basis.”
The council compared the 50th Street process to the last time the village did this type of improvement, which was a much larger project in the Saddle Trail Park neighborhood. That was done through the Village of Wellington, not Acme. Nevertheless, the issue of fairness did not come up.
“In that instance, almost everybody had equal-sized lots, which is not the case here,” Councilman John McGovern said. “In this case, the largest single landowner has access to another paved road, so the benefit could be different.”
During time for public comment, Bellissimo’s attorney Dan Rosenbaum said that the process used by the village and Acme was not fair to his client.
“The way that this is being done is just completely arbitrary and capricious,” Rosenbaum said. “There are no criteria for determining any of these benefits. My client owns 59 acres, which is more than 50 percent of this.”
Rosenbaum said that the flaw in the process is that two different methods were used to set it up.
“This process was started based on a two-thirds basis of owners, but you are assessing this based on an acreage basis,” he said. “Now you are in a situation where there is a huge disparity.”
Bellissimo’s assessed cost for the roadwork will be more than $3 million.
“In this case, you have a substantial inequity, where you have one owner to the north, yet then you have these smaller parcels that determine the course of this unit of development,” Rosesnbaum said.
Rosenbaum also pointed out a possible rounding error that slightly changes the figures in the engineer’s report, and in this case, shows that Bellissimo is the majority property owner in the unit of development.
“The minority is able to get the majority assessed on a per-acre basis,” he said. “The only fair way to do it, and to pass constitutional muster, would be to do them both the same way. You can’t create the unit of development and approve the paving project based on a vote of parcel ownership, and then assess based on acreage.”
Bellissimo called it a case of “taxation without representation.” He said he would be willing to pay his one-eleventh share among the property owners, but not 50 percent of the total project.
“I am essentially getting no benefit,” he said. “We have a border on this road, but my property is on South Road. The construct that I benefit equally per acre is absurd.”
Bellissimo asked for the village to postpone the matter to figure out if there is another way to get this done.
“I don’t want to be obstructionist, and I think the road would be interesting, but not if I have to pay for 50 percent of it,” he said, suggesting that perhaps something could be worked out with the Wellington Classic Estates association, which represents the other property owners across the street.
Edwards stressed that the methodology used in the report has been validated by the courts numerous times. He also said that while Bellissimo might not use the access points on 50th Street, they are there, and people who work at the property likely use them.
The project will go to a judge for verification as part of the bond sale process. Edwards said that would be the proper venue for Rosenbaum and Bellissimo to make their case that the funding allocation is unfair.
“I don’t want to get into litigation,” Bellissimo said. “I think we should take a step back and try to work this out.”
The council postponed the item until their next meeting, but any significant changes will bring several months of delays. This will give the engineer the time to verify the numbers in the report to address Rosenbaum’s concern about possible rounding errors. “That also happens to provide the time for any other kind of discussion between the various landowners and the village,” McGovern said.
The item will return to the council for an update on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
In other business:
• After several previous discussions, the council held a formal public hearing and voted unanimously to approve the village’s $128.5 million budget and property tax rates for fiscal year 2022-23, which begins Oct 1. The second public hearing and final adoption of the budget is set for Wednesday, Sept. 21.
• The council unanimously approved the annexation of the approximately 50-acre Lotis Phase II property on State Road 7, located just north of the mixed-use Lotis development currently under construction. Under discussion was the annexation only, with land use and zoning planned for future meetings, but the property is envisioned for 223 residential units, a restaurant, an indoor/outdoor entertainment facility, and 13 acres of lakes and preserve area.
• The council appointed the members of its new Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, including Councilwoman Tanya Siskind, along with Satyanarayara Polineni, Elliot Johnson, Thomas Hind, Juan Pagan, Kesnel Theus Jr., John Greene and Kathy Langley.
• The council approved the tentative sale of a .212-acre triangular piece of remnant property located near the corner of South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road from the Acme Improvement District to the adjacent property owner for $200,000. The property owner, located in the Mallet Hill neighborhood, agreed to provide the necessary bridle path and maintenance easements as part of the sale.