Wellington Council Hearings On Controversial Proposals Delayed Until November

The Wellington Village Council.

What one Wellington official called maybe the most important vote in the history of the village came with one more last-minute wrinkle earlier this month.

On short notice that irked some residents, the Wellington Village Council on Tuesday, Oct. 10 postponed consideration of a blockbuster development plan in horse country until mid-November at the request of a team working with equestrian businessman Mark Bellissimo.

The development group, Wellington Lifestyle Partners, said that it has reduced its requests for nearly 450 residential units to just over 200 as part of a bigger-picture plan to double the size of the showgrounds and build a commercial “main street.”

Suspense hangs heavy over whether a required four out of five council members will agree to remove 96 acres from Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area to make it all happen.

Such delays in considering evolving plans from developers are not uncommon, council members said, though the timing in this case did not please some residents who said they re-arranged their schedules to be there.

“There was somebody in the crowd I heard say something to the effect of ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’” Councilman Michael Drahos said. “From my point of view, this is one of the most important votes, if not the most important vote in the history of Wellington.”

With the stakes viewed as so high, officials said they did not want to rush the issue, even as they acknowledged frustration from people who said they did not learn of the postponement until about an hour before the meeting.

The latest plan is for the council to take up the matter Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. in the first of as many as three meetings on successive days, if needed.

As various people tried to get attention to speak at the Oct. 10 meeting, Mayor Anne Gerwig banged her gavel and threatened to clear the chambers.

“I understand that everyone is frustrated,” Gerwig said. “We are not going to have disorder in here.”

One person asked if residents would be allowed to vote on the development plan if it is approved by the council. No such referendum on a land-use decision is allowed under state law, though under village rules, removing land from the Equestrian Preserve Area does require a council supermajority, Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said.

“I’ve never seen a process so anti-democratic as this,” resident Richard Sirota said. “Normally, you couldn’t cancel a meeting on an hour’s notice. You couldn’t pull items off an agenda. That’s implicitly giving a plus to the applicant.”

While it was the council’s prerogative to agree to the postponement, it is rare for a government body to refuse a developer’s request to postpone a hearing.

Wellington staff issued a statement on the projects, known as Wellington North and Wellington South, before the meeting.

“Wellington Lifestyle Partners has been working with the community, interested parties and village staff on changes resulting in reduced density impacts… and has requested a continuation to a date certain,” according to the statement. “Staff supports this request and recommends the request be approved to allow more time for staff to review the most recent modifications to the application and allow the applicant time to continue to address issues raised by interested parties and the community. Due to the timing of the request, it will require consideration and approval by the council and is not a by-right postponement.”

Another resident, Karen Holland, said a letter to Wellington residents from the development group frames the plan as “Preserving Wellington” but she is concerned that people are “not getting an idea of what the other side is.”

Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone urged residents to stay involved in the process.

“We appreciate your comments,” he said. “Keep them coming, and hopefully we’ll see most of you in November.”