The Wellington Village Council gave initial approvals Thursday, Nov. 16 to a series of comprehensive plan amendments necessary for the controversial Wellington North and Wellington South development proposals. The votes, which came after more than 15 hours of hearings, advance the projects to a second reading, most likely in January.
However, several council members said that they were not yet comfortable with all of the conditions placed on the approvals, designed to guarantee, among other points, that development of the Wellington North parcel does not happen until the promised expansion of the Wellington International showgrounds is operational.
The Wellington North comprehensive plan amendment and rezoned passed 4-1 with Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone dissenting. If approved on its final reading, it would remove 96 acres from the Equestrian Preserve Area for the first time in village history.
The Wellington South comprehensive plan amendment was approved 5-0. That change would allow the proposed expansion to the showgrounds, along with a new residential community.
Below is the story that ran in the Nov. 17 issue of the Town-Crier, which went to press before the vote late Thursday evening.
A critical phase for a controversial equestrian development plan in Wellington kicked off this week with a flurry of deal-making diplomacy and the surprise offer of a new 50-acre public park.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, the Wellington Village Council set the stage for multiple meetings during the week and prospective further action in December and January on what happens with a hugely consequential proposal by Wellington Lifestyle Partners.
The council returned to continue its hearing on Wednesday and was scheduled to conclude its deliberations Thursday. The outcome of that meeting was not available as the Town-Crier went to press.
The group’s plan would build more than 200 homes, pave the way for an expanded horse showgrounds and construct a commercial “main street” in the middle of the saddled-up part of the village that gives it a world-famous brand and identity.
To get there, four of five council members will have to agree to do something Wellington has never done. They will have to remove 96 acres from the village’s Equestrian Preserve Area, which severely limits what can be built there.
The overall plan had already retreated from 447 homes to 210. Then came mention of a 50-acre public park north of Forest Hill Blvd. near its intersection with South Shore Blvd., offered by the team working with equestrian businessman Mark Bellissimo.
OK, but who pays for turning it into a park? Doug McMahon, CEO and managing partner of Wellington Lifestyle Partners, said his group would “remain open” to contributions toward getting the park going, as opposed to just turning over land that has been arranged for purchase.
Then again, details on more than one proposal did not initially meet with complete mutual harmony and understanding.
Take an evolving understanding with village staff that Wellington Lifestyle Partners would not build homes in the part of the project known as Wellington North until the showgrounds expansion was operational by Dec. 21, 2028.
Council members asked: Did that mean no houses on just the dressage showgrounds that would eventually be incorporated into a larger complex to the south, or did it refer to all territory in Wellington North?
On Nov. 14, McMahon at first answered that 48 homes of a proposed nearly 100 homes could still be built on other parts of Wellington North.
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said that was not her understanding.
McMahon talked about honoring the “spirit” of the agreement and pledged to pursue a more specific understanding.
“We’re going to need to get to letter versus spirit,” Councilman John McGovern said.
“I’m recognizing the point,” McMahon replied.
A larger goal was to persuade council members that the developers were ready to get something done, portraying past requests as not fully ripe.
“We were too big, we were too bold, eight months ago,” McMahon said.
Among other efforts, Wellington Lifestyle Partners played an eight-minute video highlighting its aspirations at the Tuesday meeting.
“We want to add to this community, and leave it even better than we found it,” McMahon said in the video. “Our goal is for Wellington to remain the horse sport capital of the world for decades to come.”
Heading into the week, a part of the plan known as Wellington South featured 114 lots, including five farms of four or more acres and 109 of at least a half-acre in size. That would happen on 270 acres near South Shore Blvd. and Lake Worth Road, east of Gene Mische Way.
Wellington North would see 48 single-family homes and 48 multi-family residences, mostly townhomes, on more than 100 acres near South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road. That’s where the question becomes whether to take 96 acres north of Pierson out of the preserve.
Neighbors affected by the plan, recognized in the meeting as interested parties, offered their views.
Harvey Oyer, representing the Jacobs family in Wellington, said his client remains “unwavering” in protecting the equestrian preserve but acknowledged the applicant “has not only heard our concerns but they have also adjusted their applications to address many of the concerns.”
These include lower density and delaying home-building until the new showgrounds were up and running, he said.
Others struck a less conciliatory tone.
The most powerful economic barons in American history have not been able to buy or commercialize an acre of New York City’s Central Park, observed Andrew Carduner, president of the Palm Beach Polo & Country Club Property Owners’ Association. He drew a comparison to Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area.
“Do we or do we not have a preserve?” he asked.
Longtime Wellington equestrian Cynthia Gardner agreed. “Removing this land from the equestrian preserve opens the door to other people doing this,” she said.
Linda Farrington, who said she came to Wellington in 1998, echoed the theme.
“It’s 96 acres today, two years later it’s some other land gone,” she said. “We don’t need more houses.”
Southfields resident and polo player Marc Ganzi, who said he has lived in Wellington for 23 years, said folks knew the restrictions when they bought the land.
“Wellington is a brand,” he told the council. “That brand is in your hands to protect.”
Murray Kessler, former president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, said bluntly that Bellissimo can be a “pain in the butt” and he has not always lived up to his promises.
However, Kessler said the current proposal can help shore up Wellington’s facilities and its future. “This protects U.S. equestrian sports,” he said.
The council returned on Wednesday for five more hours of discussion dominated by comments from the public. Most of the speakers opposed the developments. The council then moved on to questioning its staff, the developers and the other interested parties. Key topics of conversation were traffic and water issues.