A controversial plan to build 27 single-family homes on part of a long-defunct golf course in Wellington took a step forward Tuesday night.
The council voted unanimously on first reading to approve a comprehensive plan amendment that would change the land use for the 23 acres on the south side of Forest Hill Boulevard in Palm Beach Polo and Country Club from open space recreation to residential.
The council’s vote came with conditions, several members said, noting that this is the first vote on the comprehensive plan amendment and there is no guarantee they will vote the same way when the request returns to the Village Council as early as next month. Council members said the project’s planners need to address several issues, including an apparent lack of communication with neighbors in the Golf Cottages condominiums of Palm Beach Polo.
The project, called Farrell Estates, initially was planned in two parts: Farrell East and Farrell West. The Farrell East plan was scrapped after pushback from Palm Beach Polo residents, because it would convert amenities including tennis courts into 14 single-family homes.
The only plan remaining includes the 23 acres north of the Golf Cottages, south of Forest Hill Boulevard, west of Polo Club Drive and east of the St. Andrews condominiums, said Neil Schiller with Government Law Group, the agent for the project.
The developer, Farrell Cos. and Farrell Building Group, has a contract to buy the property from its current owner, Palm Beach Polo Inc., whose president is Glenn Straub.
The Farrell Cos. have no relationship with the Palm Beach Polo Property Owners Association or with its president, Schiller said.
What is being proposed?
If approved as presented Tuesday night, the project would include 27 single-family homes on fairly large lots, with about 1.17 units per acre.
The 27 units would be moved from another pod in Palm Beach Polo, the Blue Cypress Tract, so no additional units are being requested than what is already approved for Palm Beach Polo, the applicant said. If built as proposed, another unbuilt 39 dwelling units would remain for Palm Beach Polo.
The homes would be large, with modern architecture in line with current demand, said Michael Sanchez with Farrell Cos. All of the architectural plans would be approved by Wellington’s Architectural Review Board and the Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club Property Owners Association.
The neighborhood would be surrounded by landscape buffers of varying widths, from 43 feet along Forest Hill Boulevard — which would include a new wall and landscaping to replace the current fence and hedges — to 30 feet to the east along Polo Club Drive, to 15 feet between the proposed community and the Golf Cottages.
During construction, crews would enter and leave through a space on Polo Club Drive before the Palm Beach Polo guard gate. If completed as planned, residents in the new neighborhood would enter and leave through a new entrance along Sunnydale Drive, to the west.
Wellington’s staff recommended approval of the amendment, and the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board voted 4-1 with member Jeffrey Robbert dissenting to recommend the council approve the request.
What used to be there?
The property previously was the southern portion of Palm Beach Polo and Country Club’s North Course, a golf course that has been closed for more than two decades.
Also known as the East Course, Palm Beach Polo Inc. first converted the site to a polo field, then held weekly Sunday soccer games there. Those games were not permitted and resulted in code violations and complaints from neighbors, particularly in Palm Beach Polo’s Golf Cottages, which overlook the property.
Neighbors said participants and observers of the soccer matches were changing clothes behind trees, urinating in bushes, selling food without permits and leaving behind trash. Wellington code officers and sheriff’s deputies were able to document some of the behaviors.
A special use permit was eventually obtained for the games, in 2017.
Several proposals have been made over the years on both the East Course and the North Course, north of Forest Hill Boulevard. None have passed council approval, and many stalled before making it to their first committee review.
What did neighbors say?
Those who spoke at Tuesday night’s council meeting were largely in opposition to the project.
All live in Palm Beach Polo, and most of those who spoke live in the Golf Cottages.
In commenting on the plans, some cited distrust of Palm Beach Polo Inc. and Straub as reason for their opposition. “His antics are legendary,” said Richard Allen of Pondview Drive, adding that he felt fewer homes in the proposed neighborhood would be “more in line” with Palm Beach Polo.
Neighbors also said they wanted to preserve open green space. Others said the project could set “a dangerous precedent” for future developers to come to Wellington and rezone recreational or open space to residential.
“The preservation of our green spaces has been a pillar of our zoning regulations,” said Jill Allen of Mizner Way.
Palm Beach Polo POA president Andrew Carduner also spoke — in favor of the project.
Speaking on behalf of the POA’s 1,253 homes and roughly 3,000 residents, Carduner said the quality of homes is “consistent with the high standards in the estate section” of the development. The project would transform a property that has been “allowed to fall into disrepair,” he said.
“We don’t deny that there will be opposition,” he said, adding, “We regret and dislike having to be at odds with our neighbors and friends.”
Regarding concerns about green space, Carduner said Palm Beach Polo and Country Club has 282 acres of preserved land, with 189 acres of the former Dunes golf course now in preservation, and 92 acres in the Big Blue Preserve, the largest remaining cypress hammock in South Florida.
What did the council say?
Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone said before the next vote, Farrell’s representatives need to work more closely with neighbors in the Golf Cottages to find a solution to their concerns. “See if there can be any kind of harmony to create, not a perfect solution, but one everyone can live with,” he said.
Councilman Michael Drahos grew up on The Twelfth Fairway, the road that runs along the west side of the North Course with homes backing up to the former course. He remembers how the golf course’s grass felt under his feet, and hanging out in the tunnel that connects the two properties under Forest Hill Boulevard.
“The truth is, I always wished to one day be able to get a house on the other side of that tunnel, because to me, Palm Beach Polo was like the epitome of success,” Drahos said. He looked at homes in the Golf Cottages, but was discouraged by “the history of all the trouble that’s gone on in that piece of property,” he said.
While denying the project would be a win for its opponents, it would be a temporary win, Drahos said. Another project could come back later before another council with a higher requested density, he said.
But he said the project will not get his vote at second reading unless he is convinced that the new wall along Forest Hill Boulevard will be an acceptable replacement to the fence and hedge currently there.
Councilman John McGovern agreed. “My great feat is that if there were some other proposal to some other council a year from now, two years from now, three years from now, what we’re going to hear is consistent with the Golf Cottages is more apartments, and I think that would be a tragedy, particularly for what I view as a crown jewel neighborhood of Wellington,” he said.
Councilwoman Tanya Siskind acknowledged that it is a “very emotional issue.” She supported it, with the same conditions as her fellow council members – particularly when it comes to better communication with Palm Beach Polo residents.
“I think overall, the project is in keeping with the character of Palm Beach Polo, which I’m very familiar with,” she said.
Mayor Anne Gerwig said the council will be looking for Farrell’s representatives to work with neighbors on the landscape transition from the Golf Cottages into Farrell Estates, as well as highlighting the importance of the aesthetics of the roadway wall.
What happens next?
The council will have a second vote on the comprehensive plan amendment, and vote on the proposed master plan, at a future meeting. That date has not been set.
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