A Wellington advisory panel bridled at proposals to allow hundreds of luxury residences and country club enhancements on land currently reined in from such development in the village’s Equestrian Preserve Area, kicking off 90 days that could reveal much about the fate of an intensely watched plan.
Unanimous no votes from Wellington’s seven-member Equestrian Preserve Committee in hours-long meetings Wednesday, June 7 and Thursday, June 8 provided pushback to pitches from development partners working with equestrian businessman Mark Bellissimo that it would all work to nurture the community’s signature identity and future prosperity.
“They’ve never considered those extra people might ruin the ambiance of the horse show we already have and why people come here,” Committee Member Dr. Kristy Lund said.
“Why would they ruin it?” asked Dan Rosenbaum, an attorney representing Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the group trying to advance the plan.
“People come to Wellington because it’s a horse community and has large open spaces and not a lot of density,” Lund said. “That’s why people come to Wellington.”
It marks the latest bout of jousting in a long-running saga, but the advisory vote does not sideline the proposals from consideration in other government stops. These include the village’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board in July and the Wellington Village Council in August.
The equestrian and zoning boards provide advisory opinions, and the final decision rests with the council.
The proposals are broken up into separate pieces.
The Wellington North project would allow a comprehensive plan amendment and rezoning of the properties currently known as Coach House, Equestrian Village and White Birch Farms at the northeast corner of South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road. The Wellington North would include a total of 300 homes (22 single-family and 278 multi-family), as well as an extensive amenities area serving both projects. Due to the multi-family use, portions of the land would need to be removed from the Equestrian Preserve Area.
The Wellington South project, located on several parcels west of South Shore Blvd. and north of Lake Worth Road, would allow comprehensive plan and master plan amendments to the Wellington Country Place PUD allowing for a large increase in the size of the Wellington International showgrounds, as well as the addition of a 148-lot neighborhood of single-family homes and five larger equestrian farm sites.
Advocates described one such piece of the housing component as an important “chess move” to complement prospective improvements, such as the reconfigured and expanded show grounds to seat at least 7,000 spectators, along with more permanent stalls and a new home for the Global Dressage Festival.
But board members said housing plans seem detailed, while the showground proposals appear far less concrete, and controlled by a separate owner from the would-be home developer. Several wondered aloud if the dangled horse-venue improvements were being “held hostage” to get the residential proposals through, with no real legal or financial obligations emerging to connect the two things.
“We’re so far away from anything real,” said Jane Cleveland, the committee’s chair.
The point is to preserve Wellington as “the equestrian capital of the world,” said Doug McMahon, chief executive officer of Wellington Lifestyle Partners, whose principals include Bellissimo’s daughter Paige.
He also serves as an officer in Nexus Luxury Collection Management, which builds and oversees luxury communities around Florida and the nation and whose sales pitch mentions investors including golfers Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, along with entertainer Justin Timberlake.
It would be beneficial to have a “diversity of housing options,” McMahon said.
Supporters of the plan have portrayed it as a crucial way to compete with rival horse venues in places such as Ocala.
But some aspects aroused concern in the meetings, particularly on a committee whose members, by design, all have direct ties to equestrian activities.
For example, the Wellington North proposal asks the village to remove about 96 acres from the village’s Equestrian Preserve Area, in parcels north of Pierson Road. The preserve designation limits what can be built there.
McMahon said this should be viewed in the context of wider aims and plans, even if not all of them are immediately part of the proceedings before village officials.
Still, the questions kept coming about what guarantees the village is really getting on the horse show venue.
“You cannot and must not make decisions based on promises and hopes,” resident Carolyn Luther said.
More than 100 people attended each committee meeting and most who spoke said they opposed the plan. Several brought up increased traffic on narrow roads designed for a pastoral setting. Others mentioned worries about setting a precedent for chipping away at the Equestrian Preserve Area whenever that becomes convenient or profitable for a given landowner.
Tommy Skiffington, a horse farm owner in Wellington, said he understands what the developers hope to do.
“I believe the development of that land will be a feeder system with their families into our horse show world,” he said. “I do believe it will help the horse show and the Village of Wellington.”
Mark Elie, a resident for more than 33 years and a small business owner, argued against adding hundreds more homes and commercial development to a road system already overburdened, especially during the horse show season.
“So now here we are talking again about developing more remaining green space in the middle of the village,” he said. “We need to say no, finally. Let’s say no.”
Victoria McCullough, a longtime equestrian activist both in Wellington and across the nation, expressed hope that people can work out differences to get a good outcome. She said she had spoken to members of the development team.
“Maybe less houses, but can we all work together? Absolutely,” she said. “I think we need to do it together.”
The project’s next stop is the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, July 19.