Rough start: Wellington equestrian board recommends denial of plans for The Wellington North and South

It was a rocky start for The Wellington.

The controversial proposal — tied to some big name celebrities — to develop hundreds of new homes and amenities in Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area received four unanimous votes from the Equestrian Preserve Committee to recommend denial of the project’s applications, which were presented in a marathon two-night meeting the likes of which Wellington hasn’t seen in years.

Looming large over the meeting — which grew contentious at several points with applause and jeering from opponents who packed into Wellington’s council chambers and an overflow room, and brought signs and stickers that urged the committee to seek “horses, not houses” — was the specter of the 300-acre World Equestrian Center in Ocala, which opened in 2021 as a mixed-use competition ground that includes a hotel and air-conditioned space for horse shows, plus shops and restaurants.

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Proponents of the project said Wellington’s equestrian industry must grow and offer new amenities to compete with Ocala. Opponents said there’s no competition: Wellington is unique, more housing is not needed and open space should be preserved.

Anticipating lengthy presentations and significant public opposition, Wellington’s staff planned for the two-night meeting for the Equestrian Preserve Committee. Another two-night meeting will be scheduled for the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board to hear the requests in July. The applications then will go to the Village Council in August.

Who are the developers?

The project was pitched and applied for by Wellington Lifestyle Partners, which is Wellington Equestrian Partners and NEXUS Luxury Collection.

Wellington Equestrian Partners is helmed by Wellington resident and entrepreneur Mark Bellissimo, who is credited with developing and modernizing the former Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, now Wellington International, on Pierson Road. He also developed Equestrian Village on the northeast corner of South Shore Boulevard and Pierson, where the Global Dressage Festival is held.

NEXUS is part of Tavistock Group, which counts Justin Timberlake, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods among its investors.

The CEO of Wellington Lifestyle Partners is Doug McMahon, the co-founder of NEXUS. He said the NEXUS is different from other developers because it builds communities, and then stays to operate them.

What is being proposed?

There are multiple parts involved in The Wellington, including a mixed-use center at the corner of South Shore and Greenview Shores boulevards that has yet to be reviewed by Wellington’s boards.

This week’s two-night meeting focused on The Wellington North and The Wellington South.

The proposed site plan for The Wellington North. Not pictured here is the Cypress golf course, which is northeast of the property in Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. [From Wellington planning documents]

The Wellington North would include a little more than 100 acres on the northeast corner of South Shore Boulevard and Pierson Road, which is where the Global Dressage Festival is now held. It also includes two polo fields known as White Birch Farm, and the property of the former Players Club, then the proposed Coach House, and now the Wellington Lifestyle Partners’ office.

The Wellington North would include:

  • 278 multi-family units in 12 buildings
  • 22 single-family homes
  • A 56,000-square-foot clubhouse with four pools
  • A 119,000-square-foot field house
  • A covered stage
  • A kid zone
  • A dog park
  • Sports fields
  • Tennis and pickleball courts
  • Golf amenities including a driving range and practice space for short-game and putting, plus a golf clubhouse
  • The recently purchased 18-hole Cypress golf course that is in Palm Beach Polo and Country Club

According to Wellington’s staff report, the amenities would be open to The Wellington’s residents, and there would be some memberships available for those who live outside the community.

The proposed site plan for The Wellington South, which includes a preliminary look at possible expansion plans south of Wellington International. [From Wellington planning documents]

The Wellington South includes about 270 acres in several parcels like crooked teeth on the map, with about 114 acres directly south of Wellington International and north of Gracida Way, and the remaining chunk on the northwest corner of Lake Worth Road and South Shore Boulevard.

The Wellington South would include:

  • 148 single-family homes
  • Five equestrian farm sites
  • A preserve
  • An equestrian amenity site
  • Bridle and multi-purpose trails through the property from South Shore Boulevard west to Wellington’s equestrian trail

All of the residences would be higher-end, luxury homes and condominiums, on par with other properties in NEXUS’ portfolio, McMahon said.

In addition, discussed Thursday night as part of The Wellington South’s application is an overhaul and expansion of Wellington International to move the dressage competition grounds to the same site as show jumping.

Michael Stone, president of Global Equestrian Group, which owns and operates Wellington International, said that with the 114-acre expansion, the grounds would grow to 180 acres.

Wellington staff noted that with the possible conversion of the current dressage grounds to The Wellington North, the 114 acres south of Wellington International would result in a total gain of 50 acres for the show grounds.

The newer portion would include schooling areas, a new stadium with seating for 7,000 spectators, up to 1,500 permanent stalls, nine competition rings, covered arenas, a permanent hospitality venue with bars and restaurants, and better parking and way finding, Stone said.

What did they ask for?

The Equestrian Preserve Committee reviewed four requests from Wellington Lifestyle Partners:

  • To change Wellington’s comprehensive plan to modify the Equestrian Preserve Area, to remove about 96 acres where The Wellington North would be. That property now is Equestrian Village — home to Global Dressage — and White Birch Farms. That request included changing the land use for the entire site to Residential E, which would allow for about five to eight residential units per acre.
  • To change the zoning for the property planned as The Wellington North from the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District to a planned-unit development, and to remove the properties from the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District.
  • To amend Wellington’s comprehensive plan to change the land use for the 114 acres south of Wellington International from residential to equestrian commercial recreation; and to change the land use for the rest of property planned for The Wellington South from its current mix of uses, including residential and commercial, to Residential C, which would allow for one to three residential units per acre.
  • To combine several pods of Wellington’s CountryPlace planned unit development into one to create The Wellington South; to transfer 60 residential units from the pod south of the show grounds to The Wellington South’s residential area; to change the use of the land south of the show grounds to equestrian commercial; to allow for a maximum of 197 units and an amenities area in The Wellington South; and to add one access point along South Shore Boulevard and two along Gracida Street.

The votes to recommend denial of all of the requests will advise the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board and the Village Council in their votes, Village Attorney Laurie Cohen told the committee.

What is the Equestrian Preserve Area?

The pieces of the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District are seen here in this Wellington map. [From Wellington planning documents]

Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area, or EPA, includes 9,000 acres of various equestrian uses, from massive barns and show grounds to mansions and smaller single-family homes. The preserve includes the Winding Trails, Little Ranches and Rustic Ranches neighborhoods.

The Equestrian Overlay Zoning District was created in 2003 to regulate development within the EPA.

All of The Wellington’s properties are in the preserve’s Subarea D, seen above in purple.

What did they say?

Keep in mind, this meeting lasted for two nights.

That’s two nights of comments from the committee, Wellington’s planning staff, representatives for Wellington Lifestyle Partners and project opponents.

Wednesday night’s meeting was a little under five hours. Thursday night’s meeting ran past midnight after a 6:30 p.m. start time.

I could sit here and write thousands of words on what everyone said. Instead, I’m going to try to hit some of the highlights in the back-and-forth between the committee, the developers and the public.

Committee members were critical of both the staff’s review of the applications, and the applications themselves.

They questioned interpretations of the village charter, the intent of the Equestrian Preserve Area and the comprehensive plan.

“We all work very hard here to preserve the land,” board chair Jane Cleveland said Wednesday night. “That’s why the preserve was created.”

The removal of the 96 acres from the Equestrian Preserve Area proved to be a particular sticking point. In their analysis of the project, Wellington’s staff said that if land was going to be removed from the equestrian preserve, then the proposed location on the corner of Pierson and South Shore was a logical candidate.

That’s because the land is north of Pierson and east of South Shore. Only one other piece of the preserve is north of Pierson and east of South Shore: Black Watch Farm, which is in Palm Beach Polo north of Pierson near the 120th Avenue South roundabout.

Wellington’s planning staff said it also was a potential candidate for removal from the preserve because it is bordered on three sides by non-preserve land.

But some committee members and opponents who spoke during the public hearing said that could lead to a dangerous precedent of allowing land to be removed from the equestrian preserve to create higher-density developments.

“Something feels terribly wrong with this notion that we’re just slicing off 1% of the EPA,” said committee member Glen Fleischer.

“Are we just going to chop away at it until it’s just one big solid chunk south of Pierson?” Cleveland said.

Paige Bellissimo, Mark Bellissimo’s daughter, said in introducing the projects that she and her husband are committed to Wellington.

“This project is personal to me,” she said. “My family and closest friends all live here.”

Don Hearing with Cotleur & Hearing, the agent for The Wellington, said Wellington Lifestyle Partners understands that removing land from the preserve is a big ask.

“I think that our plan and the efforts that have been brought forth really are intended to further support and enhance the lifestyle and overall value of what is in the equestrian preserve,” he said.

The committee members questioned the contention by Wellington Lifestyle Partners that the project, which McMahon said they are calling The Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club, would directly enhance the village’s equestrian lifestyle.

McMahon said all of the pieces of the project are “inextricably linked.” The Wellington will attract equestrians and the next generation of equestrians, he said.

Stone later noted that he felt there would be a benefit to the horse show.

“There’s no doubt that if more high net worth individuals come to Wellington, the chances of them getting involved in the horse show is significant,” Stone said.

Board member Kristy Lund said she felt that the developers did not think about the opposite: That more people “might ruin the ambience.”

“If you build and build and build, you lose the character of why Wellington people come here,” she said.

Fleischer and fellow board member Rachel Eidelman asked if larger lots of either 2- or 4-acre farms would be feasible for The Wellington South, instead of single-family homes on less than an acre.

“It doesn’t pencil out for all of the investment that you have to make,” McMahon said. The initial investment before any real estate could be sold could be about $200 million, he said.

Opponents speaking during the public hearing said they were concerned the project could be a bait and switch. Some suggested that the possible expansion of the show grounds needs to be more concrete before they would offer any support.

Resident Maureen Brennan said a petition opposing The Wellington has received more than 3,000 signatures.

“This is a desire across the board,” she said, adding that removing land from the EPA “is not a slippery slope, it’s a freefall.”

Others who commented said the character of The Wellington simply doesn’t fit Wellington.

“What do we need? We need farms. What do people want? They want farms,” said Realtor Lauren Brody. “What makes Wellington so unique? It’s not just the horse show, and it’s not just the farms. It’s the combination.”

Equestrian trainer Thomas Skiffington provided the lone public comment in support on Wednesday night, and was one of two or three who spoke and was open to the plans at Thursday night’s meeting.

He travels to Ocala to compete, and said he does believe it could be competition for Wellington.

“The development of that land,” he said, referring to The Wellington, “I actually do believe will be a feeder system to our horse shows.”

Share your thoughts

Were you at the meetings this week, or did you watch from home? What are your thoughts on the project? Comment below.


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