After four nights of hearings and a nearly two-week delay, the Wellington Village Council approved a plan Wednesday, Feb. 7 that for the first time in village history allows the removal of 96 acres from its Equestrian Preserve Area to accommodate a new luxury golf community.
It is a plan that, depending on who is talking, represents either the salvation or ruin of Wellington’s signature equestrian industry.
The council’s 4-1 vote this week on the second reading for key parts of the plan came after months of hearings in an atmosphere of packed chambers, polarized opinions, last-minute offers and even a petition to recall council members.
As he did in November, Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone cast the lone dissenting vote for the part of the plan called Wellington North, which requires removing land from the Equestrian Preserve Area.
Developers working with equestrian entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo say the plan clears the path for an expanded and consolidated Wellington International showgrounds, while allowing 203 luxury residences and a commercial main street with a hotel, shops, offices and restaurants.
“We will not let this community down,” said Paige Bellissimo Nunez, Bellissimo’s daughter and an executive with the development group Wellington Lifestyle Partners. “We are all in.”
The developers had to overcome arguments that taking land from the equestrian preserve for a golf community sets a bad precedent that others can exploit to chip away at the 9,000 acres that help define Wellington as a global capital in the horse world. Development is sharply limited there to a small, spread-out number of homes and farms and equestrian activities.
“This is an abomination to most people,” said equestrian resident Robin Parsky, speaking for groups in the equestrian community. “It’s going to be an eyesore for most people in our business.”
Some riders and residents opposing the proposal asked for a pause to consider who might become the new owners of the horse show, which is for sale, as well as last-minute interest from some local residents to buy the current dressage facility. Dressage would be moved to the larger, centralized horse show under the development plan.
In the days before the final meeting, one group contacted council members about what they described as a commitment of $25 million to buy the property and keep dressage where it is.
“If you put a pause in the development proposal, you will put this back in the hands of the equestrian community that wants to get this right,” Parsky said.
Councilman John McGovern asked Parsky if her group had talked to the owners of the current dressage site. She said no because it was not completely clear who the owners are.
The developers said control of the land is ultimately in the hands of Wellington Lifestyle Partners, though in some cases other corporate entities show up in property records as vehicles to accomplish certain land sales.
Asked if WLP was interested in selling to the local group, Wellington Lifestyle Partners CEO Doug McMahon said, “No, we are not.”
Some equestrians and residents spoke in support of the WLP plan.
John Ingram called it “a step in the right direction,” adding, “We need to do this.”
An expanded showgrounds, bringing together hunters, jumpers and the currently separate dressage show is made possible by zoning changes in the part of the project known as Wellington South. It covers 270 acres near South Shore Blvd. and Lake Worth Road, east of Gene Mische Way.
A major condition of the deal is that proposals to expand the showgrounds and move dressage into the consolidated venue must happen by late 2028, or no homes can be built in the other part, Wellington North. The north piece sits on more than 100 acres near South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road, and it includes 96 acres that would be removed from the Equestrian Preserve Area north of Pierson Road.
“This is the most complex thing I’ve seen in 14 years,” said Mayor Anne Gerwig, who ultimately registered a yes vote in a replay of a similar 4-1 initial approval in November.
McGovern said, “It scares me, the risk of getting this wrong. But it scares me even more to kick the can down the road.”
History is going to judge this council, Councilman Michael Drahos said.
“To my core, I believe that history will prove me correct that this is the best thing for Wellington,” he said.
Councilwoman Tanya Siskind also stuck with a yes vote, saying, “The application has become dramatically better from where it started.”
Napoleone remained a no vote on Wellington North, although he supported Wellington South, which includes the showgrounds expansion. “Everyone wants the horse show to be better,” he said, gesturing to opponents of the plan in attendance. “They don’t want the quid for the quo.”
In November, builders offered to give the village a public park of more than 50 acres off Forest Hill Blvd. near the Wellington branch library, on former golf course land they say they have an option to buy. Developers pledged $2 million to help get the park ready.
While the project’s approval ends one phase of the process, the next phase will kick off almost immediately. Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee is slated to review plans for the showgrounds expansion on Thursday, Feb. 15.