Developers Put The Focus On Showgrounds Expansion In Bid To Gain Support For Plans

A map showing the proposed southern expansion of the Wellington International showgrounds.

Once approved, work will begin on an expanded showgrounds before hundreds of new homes appear in the heart of Wellington’s horse country under proposals with big implications for the community’s future, the developers behind the controversial Wellington Lifestyle Partners proposal told a packed audience at Village Hall earlier this month.

“This will be the first dirt moved, and the first structures to be built,” said Doug McMahon, chief executive officer of Wellington Lifestyle Partners, before the village’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board on Wednesday, July 19. The goal: “Ensuring Wellington as the ‘horse sport capital’ for decades to come.”

The pledge to prioritize the showgrounds on the development schedule reflected one piece of a revamped pitch for projects known as Wellington South and Wellington North since the village’s Equestrian Preserve Committee voted 7-0 in opposition in June.

“I think we have started to modify our plans and demonstrate that we are listening,” said McMahon, who is working with equestrian businessman Mark Bellissimo and others on the far-reaching project.

Over the course of two days, others challenged the latest narrative.

Attorney Marc Kasowitz, representing neighbors opposed to the proposals, said the showgrounds expansion is not part of the actual application before the village. Despite verbal assurances, there is still no obligation for the residential developers to make sure that the showgrounds expansion comes about on properties under control of other parties, he said.

“They are here to make money,” Kasowitz said of the prospective home builders, in part by removing 96 acres from the village’s Equestrian Preserve Area to allow for greater housing density.

All of it touches on hot-button issues in Wellington, where the village’s identity for decades has been closely tied to equestrian events. So many interested parties and residents wanted to speak over two long nights of meetings that the Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board did not get through the entire quasi-judicial process on Wednesday, July 19 and Thursday, July 20. The board put off a vote until its next meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 16, which will include closing statements and board deliberations before a vote.

The Wellington Village Council wields ultimate authority on the matter, with aspects of the plan requiring four votes from the five-member body. Currently, the council is scheduled to take up the items on Monday, Aug. 28.

Advocates for the venture say more homes and businesses near an improved showgrounds will serve as a feeder system for participants and spectators.

Developers say they are selling property below market value to allow the showgrounds expansion as they seek changes on various parcels to clear the way for more than 400 homes, condos and amenities.

The showgrounds plan would consolidate currently separate venues into one for hunters, jumpers and dressage riders, seating up to 7,000 spectators in a space doubled to 190 acres, said Michael Stone, president of Wellington International.

“We believe this is the best way forward to create a world-class facility, compete with shows in Ocala, shows in Sarasota, and really become not only the winter equestrian capital of the world, but the year-round capital of the world,” Stone said.

His group has enlisted the help of Populous, which calls itself the world’s largest sports architecture firm with offices in Kansas City, Missouri; London, England; and Brisbane, Australia. The firm is associated with Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and scores of other stadiums, along with other sports facilities, including equestrian venues at Olympic events.

“We want to turn everything into something better than it has to be,” said Todd Gralla, principal and director of equestrian services for Populous.

The housing plan has been broken up into distinct pieces.

The Wellington South proposal is situated at the northwest corner of South Shore Blvd. and Lake Worth Road, east of Gene Mische Way, and consists of more than 269 acres. Developers seek approval to change the master plan for the area south of the Wellington International showgrounds for a new showgrounds site and develop up to 197 single-family residential units on 173 acres in its eastern end.

The proposed Wellington North project sits on about 102 acres on the northeast corner of South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road. The developers seek to remove close to 96 acres from the Equestrian Preserve Area and the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District, change the land use to residential, and develop up to 300 residential units.

Several “interested parties” spoke against the proposal, and one in favor, at the July 19 meeting.

James Gavigan, a lawyer representing the Jacobs family, owners of Deeridge Farms on Pierson Road, opposed the Wellington North proposal, questioning why a high-density development is needed to expand the horse show.

Scott Durkin, a dressage rider resident near the proposed Wellington North development, said developers are asking for an “enormous concession” to convert 96 acres of equestrian preserve land to a golf-themed residential development.

Speaking in support of the project was Katherine Kaneb, Bellissimo’s former wife, who expressed support for the project. “The equestrian venues are beyond capacity, and they need substantial reorganization and investment,” Kaneb said.

PZA Board Member Ron Herman said he understands that many people want an improved showgrounds, “But I guess the issue I and many people are dealing with, why does it have to be tied to houses and condos?”

Stone said, “If we have high-end houses, we have high-end clients who can come to the horse show.”

Several speakers brought up concerns about increasing traffic on roads designed for a pastoral setting. A staff presentation said the proposal meets traffic performance standards reviewed by Palm Beach County’s traffic division and Wellington’s traffic engineer.

The latest plans call for intersection improvements at 40th Street South and Lake Worth Road, a traffic signal or roundabout at Lake Worth Road and 120th Avenue South, widening South Shore Blvd. to four lanes from Pierson Road to Lake Worth Road, and extending turn lanes at the intersection of Pierson Road and South Shore Blvd.

The developer will be required to help pay a share of some road improvement costs, ranging in various instances from one percent to more than 12 percent, officials said.

Other speakers honed-in on protecting the Equestrian Preserve Area.

Farm owner Michael Whitlow told the committee, “Once you start chipping away at the preserve, we’re going to have nothing but development forever and ever.”

Former Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis said he cannot remember a previous application to take land out of the Equestrian Preserve Area. He urged “consideration” for equestrians wary of the move.

Speaking in support, resident Michael Cruciotti said the time has come to improve the showgrounds. He noted that he organized Equestrians for Wellington, a group that has gathered more than 500 signatures backing the development plan from people including trainers, grooms and riders.

“If the horse show is not allowed to expand, I fear we may not have a horse show in the next five to 10 years,” he said.