Equestrian Board Seeks Changes To Showgrounds Expansion Plan

A reshuffled Wellington advisory committee voted Thursday, Feb. 15 to seek new conditions for a revamped horse show tied to Wellington’s first-ever removal of land from its Equestrian Preserve Area to build luxury homes.

Among other things, Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee asked to double the 220 permanent horse stalls in the current show plan, as opposed to tents.

Annabelle Garrett, one of two new members appointed to the board days before the meeting, described her understanding of her job as “make this the best showgrounds you can.”

Judith Sloan, another new board member, agreed. “For us to compete on the world stage, and for us to continue to be the destination, I think we have to offer up more permanent stalls in this new showgrounds,” she said.

Committee Vice Chair Haakon Gangnes echoed that sentiment. “We paid a high price for this. We need to get it right,” he said.

The board’s advisory decision, by a 4-1 vote with several members absent, ultimately is not binding, as the showgrounds plan moves on to the village’s Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board, probably Feb. 28, before heading to the Wellington Village Council, perhaps March 5.

Still, it does send a signal on a sensitive issue for a village whose official logo sports a horse’s head.

At the request of a team working with equestrian businessman Mark Bellissimo, village officials agreed to replace Equestrian Preserve Committee Chair Jane Cleveland and Board Member Carlos Arellano after they spoke against the Wellington North and South projects approved by the council earlier this month.

The developers argued that the two spoke at public meetings outside their committee positions, at times representing interested parties in the process, raising the question of whether they ran afoul of rules designed to promote fair consideration by village government.

Village officials concluded it presented the risk of a lawsuit. Replacing the pair, by way of council appointments, were Sloan, an accounting executive and amateur rider, and Garrett, a hedge fund manager and polo team owner.

Reorganizing on Feb. 15, the committee tapped Glen Fleischer as chair, with Gangnes remaining as vice chair.

Among the group’s other recommendations were enhanced standards for horse and hospitality tents, adequate fencing between parking areas and barns, and schooling hours that could start at 6:30 a.m., slightly earlier than previous agreements. The moves come in a process described as reviewing compatibility with village codes.

The proposed site plan features a 78,000 square foot covered arena, a 3,000-seat international arena, a 1,500-seat hospitality area, a 1,000-seat special events pavilion, a 210-seat restaurant, a derby field, 5,100 square feet of retail operations and other amenities, according to a village staff summary.

“It is an appropriate canvas for a new set of showgrounds to be painted that are worthy of Wellington,” said Doug McMahon, CEO and managing partner of Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the development group working with Bellissimo.

The goal is to do the majority of the showgrounds expansion work in the next two years or so, he said.

In the end, one of the conditions for eventually building 203 homes and a commercial main street in the overall WLP project is that the new showgrounds must come to fruition by December 2028 or homes can’t be built in key parts of the plan.

Dressage is set to be moved from its current, separate location to join hunters and jumpers in an expanded, centralized show site.

Conditioned on showgrounds improvements, the council agreed to remove 96 acres north of Pierson Road from the Equestrian Preserve Area in order to accommodate a golf community.

Now the focus shifts to the horse show, where WLP has made financial commitments meant to ensure that the new showgrounds happen even as executives acknowledge show ownership could change hands as events unfold.

Each recommended change potentially affects profit-and-loss considerations by, say, requiring additional barns or shifting around space available for parking, unloading, rings, amenities and a Rubik’s cube of other factors.

At the meeting, resident Elizabeth Armstrong said she did not see enough green space in the plan, recommending, “Only approve when they come back with way less density.”