UPDATE: After five more hours of discussion on Thursday, Jan. 25, the Wellington Village Council still had additional testimony to hear before starting their own deliberations. The meeting was adjourned, to be continued on Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 5 p.m.
The number of proposed luxury residences dropped slightly to 203, but opinions for and against a controversial equestrian development plan in Wellington hardly cooled a degree as the Wellington Village Council neared a momentous decision.
The first of three planned nights of meetings Tuesday, Jan. 23, ahead of an expected final vote from the council, delivered tart exchanges, “Horses Not Houses” T-shirts and references to a petition to recall four council members.
The outcome of the vote, perhaps late on Thursday, Jan. 25, was not known as the Town-Crier went to press.
Project backers tried to take it in stride as they endeavored to hang on to the four council votes needed to remove 96 acres from the village’s Equestrian Preserve Area for the first time in Wellington history. A 4-1 initial vote in support in November, with Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone dissenting, set the stage.
Proponents frame it as part of a reasonable and needed plan to consolidate and expand the Wellington International showgrounds, build more than 200 homes, a boutique hotel, six restaurants and some 20 shops in a walkable commercial “main street.”
“The process has been hard, and it has been passionate, and it should be,” said Doug McMahon, CEO and managing partner of Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the development group working with equestrian businessman Mark Bellissimo. “I’d say largely this process has worked, and worked well.”
A sweetener added in November would give the village a public park of more than 50 acres off Forest Hill Blvd. on former golf course land the developers say they have an option to buy. McMahon pledged $2 million to help prepare the park.
Opponents called it a case of government gone wrong.
Resident and equestrian Cynthia Gardner said a promised better horse show or public park “seems like a poor trade for jeopardizing the entire future of the equestrian preserve.”
She said it would be “devastating” to the area because the whole point of having a preserve that voters enshrined is to limit what can be built there, especially something like the proposed golf community.
“We open the door to other people doing this as well,” Gardner said.
Maureen Brennan, a vocal opponent of the proposal, leads a group seeking signatures to recall the four council members who voted yes in November. Mayor Anne Gerwig and Councilman Michael Drahos are due to depart the dais in March, and terms end in 2026 for Councilwoman Tayna Siskind and Councilman John McGovern.
“This is our Yellowstone,” Brennan said at the meeting, referring to the national park. “I just don’t think we should be negotiating land out of our preserve.”
McMahon has downplayed such comparisons, saying the preserve is important but it is not a public park and already hosts some housing and equestrian activities.
Some neighboring residents said the plan made sense to them.
“I personally am in favor of this as long as they meet their covenants going forth,” Michael Smith said.
John Ingram agreed. “If we go in this direction, we’ve got a strong chance of remaining the equestrian capital of the world,” he said.
One condition of the deal is that plans to move dressage from its current, separate location to a consolidated venue must come to fruition by 2028, or no homes can be built in the part of the project known as Wellington North.
The expanded showgrounds serving multiple horse disciplines would be accommodated by zoning changes in Wellington South, which sits on 270 acres near South Shore Blvd. and Lake Worth Road, east of Gene Mische Way.
After the showgrounds expansion, Wellington North would have homes including multi-family residences on more than 100 acres near South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road. The 96 acres that would be removed from the equestrian preserve lie north of Pierson in Wellington North.
The showgrounds assurances did not impress Jane Cleveland, who chairs the village’s Equestrian Preserve Committee, which gave a 7-0 no verdict to an earlier version of the plan last year.
In her view, none of it changes that what is really before the council is a housing development plan, not a horse show, involving separate parties subject to possible ownership change and other complications.
“It is backward, this whole process,” Cleveland said.