A movement of Wellington residents and equestrians has formed to fight the proposed Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club, also known as the Wellington North and South development plan.
They say the project will endanger Wellington’s equestrian industry and add more congestion and pressure for services to all already busy area.
Developers have countered that the project is necessary to help the equestrian industry evolve, as it ties into the expansion and renovation of the 160-acre Wellington International grounds west of South Shore Boulevard on Pierson Road.
In-Depth on The Wellington
This is one of three parts in this in-depth report on the Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club proposed development. The other two parts are:
But those opposed to the project say that any talk of an equestrian purpose to the project is smoke and mirrors – and the true motive is purely money.
Rallying cries have formed among the opposition, including “Horses, Not Houses” and “Protect the Preserve.”
Petitions in opposition to the project have garnered thousands of signatures, and a social media campaign from several accounts and across several channels has targeted Wellington residents, both non-equestrian and equestrian.
“All we want them to do is leave us alone,” said Victoria McCullough, the owner of Chesapeake Petroleum, animal advocate and lifelong equestrian whose 24-acre Mida Farms estate is essentially hugged by land for the proposed Wellington South. “Now they want to turn us into a subdivision.”
A brief history of Wellington
Wellington first came together in the early 1950s under the guidance of the developer Charles Oliver Wellington. In 1953, the Acme Improvement District was formed for drainage and flood control across the 16,000-acre property to allow for agricultural uses.
While some of the land was sold, about 2,000 acres was used to grow strawberries, putting the property on the map at the time as the world’s largest strawberry patch. Polo was a major draw in Wellington’s early days, luring celebrities and even royalty for matches.
Because Charles Oliver Wellington was a pilot, the land became known as Flying Cow (for his initials, C.O.W.) Ranch. Wellington worked hand-in-hand with Bink Glisson to manage the land. Bink’s Forest would be named in his honor.
After Wellington’s 1959 death, his son Roger began selling pieces of the property, with the first tract of 7,400 acres going at a rate of $800 per acre to the Investment Corp. of Florida in 1971. In 1978, a major piece of land was sold to developer Gould Florida, helmed by Bill Ylvisaker – an avid polo player.
Ylvisaker led development on Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, a centerpiece of Wellington that drew equestrians, celebrities and the wealthy from around the world.
Wellington residents voted in 1995 to incorporate, with that taking effect on March 28, 1996.
The Equestrian Preserve Element of Wellington’s comprehensive plan, which created the Equestrian Preserve Area, was adopted in 1999. An update to the element was approved by the Village Council in 2021.
Opponents’ key issues
Opponents highlight several primary issues with the Wellington:
- They oppose removing property from Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area, saying it could set a precedent for other properties to do so.
- They say the project’s density is out of line with surrounding properties.
- They are concerned about additional traffic congestion.
- They say a connection between the Wellington and equestrian sports is tenuous, and any discussion of expanding Wellington International is just talk.
- They want Wellington to create an equestrian master plan, a concept that has been discussed since before Wellington’s incorporation.
The Equestrian Preserve Area
To build the Wellington North as proposed would require a supermajority of Wellington’s council to vote in favor of removing about 96 acres of land on the northeast corner of South Shore Boulevard and Pierson Road from the Equestrian Preserve Area. The property, known as Equestrian Village, is home to the annual Global Dressage Festival.
Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve covers about 9,000 acres on the south and west sides of Wellington. A small portion sits within Little Ranches in Wellington’s northeast. Other agricultural uses in the preserve include tree farms and cattle ranches.
Much of the preserve has its own special zoning district, the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District. For the Wellington North to move forward, the zoning must be changed from the EOZD to residential.
The Equestrian Preserve Element of Wellington’s comprehensive plan outlines three goals for the Equestrian Preserve: To preserve the equestrian lifestyle in Wellington, to maintain a multimodal transportation network in the EPA and to support Wellington’s equestrian competition industry.
Regarding the EOZD, the equestrian element says part of the intent of the special zoning district is to “preserve the equestrian lifestyles and large lot, equestrian farms which exist in the EOZD.”
Over the years, there have been many development applications for the Equestrian Preserve Area – including some from Mark Bellissimo, one of the partners in the Wellington applications. Bellissimo owns much of the property involved in the transactions, and his daughter, Paige Bellissimo, is executive vice president and partner in Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the group behind the Wellington.
It was a proposal from Bellissimo to build a hotel and other commercial uses on the Equestrian Village property that prompted Wellington in 2016 to hold a referendum asking the village’s voters to approve or deny allowing uses including hotels, condo-hotels and apartments in the Equestrian Preserve. The vote was against, and Bellissimo went back to the drawing board.
In 2017, he brought forward another plan that would create a unique zoning district, called a “floating district,” within the preserve to allow for those uses. While the concept to create floating districts in the preserve earned the support of the Equestrian Preserve Committee, that project did not move forward.
At one point, Bellissimo’s companies owned the three major equestrian competition grounds in Wellington: the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, now Wellington International; Equestrian Village; and the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center was sold in 2021 to Global Equestrian Group, which is held by Waterland Private Equity. As part of the deal, Global Equestrian Group, Bellissimo and his major investors formed a new partnership. At the time, the partnership said it would look for a new showground for the Global Dressage Festival.
Last year, the International Polo Club was sold to the United States Polo Association for $95 million.
‘Preserve the land’
Those who oppose the development say that removing land from the Equestrian Preserve could set a dangerous precedent for other property owners to the south of Pierson Road, and elsewhere within the preserve: If Equestrian Village can be removed from the preserve and developed into another use, then why can’t their property?
The issue was a particular sticking point when Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee reviewed the development applications in June.
“It was important for us to consider all the pieces of that application, but before we even got started, the application asked us to remove land from the preserve,” Equestrian Preserve Committee Chair Jane Cleveland said. “That right there is huge. I can’t say enough about how destructive that could be for us.”
Opponents who spoke with me shared concerns that removing the land from the Equestrian Preserve would open the door for more and more land to be removed from the preserve. They pointed to development around former polo fields near Boca Raton, with growth that started small but grew incrementally as more and more pieces of property were sold to build commercial centers and homes.
They also pointed to Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve south of Wellington. Over the past decade, more land within the Ag Reserve has been converted to residential use, with million-dollar single-family home communities growing faster than peppers and tomatoes along State Road 7 south of Lantana Road. Much of the farmland being developed is south of Boynton Beach Boulevard between Lyons Road and State Road 7.
“How do you say yes to one and no to the next?” Cleveland said.
Equestrian Preserve Committee member, longtime Wellington resident and polo player Carlos Arellano said he came to Wellington in the 1970s to play polo. His farm on Indian Mound Road in the Equestrian Preserve includes sweeping views of his polo fields and stables. When he first moved to Wellington, he rented a home in Palm Beach Polo, farmed rice in the Glades during the day and would come home to Wellington to play polo in the evenings.
Now, Arellano is a Realtor who specializes in equestrian real estate. He said he sees a trend of longtime Wellington residents looking farther afield for land to build barns, to The Acreage, Loxahatchee Groves – and beyond.
“I didn’t come to Wellington because of golf,” Arellano said. His family has continued his polo-playing legacy, with his children and grandchildren involved in the sport and playing at elite levels. “I didn’t come to Wellington because it was a western community. No, I came to Wellington because they were playing polo.”
Wellington has grown in large part thanks to the economic engine that is the equestrian industry, Arellano said. “None of the equestrians want to leave,” he said. “Some have been tempted and they have gone to Ocala. And Ocala is like, if you are a very good football player, first you go to junior college, and that’s Ocala. And then you come to do your master’s and your doctorate degree in Wellington.”
When the question of removing land from the preserve came before the committee, it wasn’t a difficult decision for Arellano.
“What is the purpose of the Equestrian Preserve Committee?” he said. “To preserve the land that is dedicated to equestrian use. The name says it. … So we are defending that.”
Polo player Maureen Brennan bought her farm – San Saba Polo Farm, previously owned by actor Tommy Lee Jones – in 2019 for $11 million. But she first came to Wellington in the early 1990s, when she was still a show jumper. She said she was charmed by the area and the level of competition in Wellington.
“Not only just as a horse person, but as a landowner within the preserve, my alarms go off that I know what happens – we all know what happens – when development enters, because horses leave,” she said. “If you take the land, the horses must leave.
“You cannot take land out of the preserve,” Brennan added. “I’m a no. I’m a rigid no. It’s a domino effect.”
While proponents of the project say that removing the land from the Equestrian Preserve Area will not set a precedent, Cleveland argued that it would.
“We have so little land in the preserve, and everything about that ordinance was created to save that land for the horse industry,” she said. “So why would anybody consider taking land out of the preserve?”
Longtime resident Patricia Bachi – whose father Robert Markey Sr. founded The Town-Crier newspaper and was a major player in Wellington’s incorporation – said she is concerned that with any rezoning, there is no going back. Wellington would lose valuable green space if the Wellington is approved, she said.
“You can’t find one piece of land that changed to residential or commercial and then 30 years later, they tore it all out and put it back to preserve,” she said.
The relationship between equestrians and non-equestrians in Wellington is symbiotic, she said. “We need each other,” she said.
Concerns about density
With million-dollar price tags expected for some of the homes within the Wellington, Cleveland said that is not what is needed in Wellington.
“That’s not Wellington,” she said.
Comparing the density requested for the multi-family units in the Wellington North to the multi-family properties to the north and east in Palm Beach Polo are not “apples to apples,” Arellano said. When properties like Polo Island – a peninsula of multi- and single-family homes in Palm Beach Polo that dips into the middle of what would be developed as the Wellington North – were developed, they looked out over polo fields, and now dressage grounds.
“Now with a three- or four-story condo, they are going to be looking down into my swimming pool,” said Lourdes Miranda, a dressage rider who owns one of the single-family homes in Polo Island and has a farm on the northeast corner of South Shore Boulevard and Indian Mound.
“I believe we need something here. We need better amenities,” Brennan said, adding that she understands that development is part of any community’s growth. “I was interested in this as a concept, but I was shocked by the numbers.”
She said the development is “out of tune with the community.”
The redevelopment and expansion of the showgrounds has been met with concern and hesitation by residential neighbors who fear an increase in light and noise.
Opposition to the Wellington has reached the Equine Land Conservation Resource, which wrote a letter to Wellington’s Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board ahead of this week’s meeting.
In a letter dated July 7, ELCR executive director Holley Groshek wrote that the rezoning would pose more of a threat to Wellington than a challenge from competition grounds in other locations.
The ELCR worked with residents in Marion County who were concerned about zoning changes and development within their Farmland Preserve Area, which generally restricts residential and commercial development to low-density agriculture-related uses.
“During that time we spent in Marion County, however, we realized a growing trend of Wellington residents relocating to Marion County, citing traffic and congestion in Wellington as the main reasons for their relocation,” Groshek wrote. “The two development proposals before this board threaten to only add to existing traffic and congestion with the potential of leading to an exodus of residents to communities that can offer a better quality of life.”
The possibility also exists of future expansion of South Shore Boulevard to four lanes between Pierson and Lake Worth roads, a move that is opposed by some equestrians who say it will encourage more cut-through traffic.
“You are basically opening up the spigot or widening the alley for more traffic to come through, and we already have an issue with cut-through traffic,” Cleveland said.
Traffic in The Acreage and Loxahatchee Groves is an example of what could happen in Wellington, McCullough said. “You can barely ride a horse anymore in Loxahatchee,” she said.
That level of development and traffic will turn Wellington into “just a typical Florida town,” Brennan said.
McCullough also shared concerns about the “zig-zag” curve west of South Shore on Gracida Way near her property. “It’s a dangerous intersection for equestrians,” she said, noting that large horse trailers have difficulty navigating the tight curve.
Additional cars from the new development will affect those outside of the preserve as well, Bachi said. She lives in Polo West on South Shore Boulevard north of the proposed Wellington North, and said she has difficulty turning out of her neighborhood at the height of the equestrian season.
“There’s just not enough room,” she said.
Protecting equestrian sports
As part of the development application, there is a moving piece that involves Wellington International. The show’s operators want to expand the grounds to the south, doubling the size of the property where it is now, although Equestrian Village would be lost with its removal from the Equestrian Preserve. The south piece of land, known as Parcel F, needs to be rezoned to an equestrian commercial use from residential for that development to move forward.
During the Equestrian Preserve Committee meeting in June, Wellington International president Michael Stone told committee members that for the expansion and renovation to move forward, the zoning first had to be approved as part of the Wellington’s applications.
But committee members were discouraged by the lack of detail and an official application for the renovation and expansion project.
“What was presented to us was nothing,” Cleveland said. “You have to look at the print on the page and the application itself.”
With no application, the committee members had nothing to go on, she said. “There’s nothing there.”
In the weeks since the Equestrian Preserve Committee meeting, a more concrete plan has been developed for Wellington International, with Stone announcing this past weekend that Populous has been hired as the architect of record on the project.
Following Stone’s announcement over the weekend, Cleveland posted a response to social media that said that the development of Wellington International be submitted and finalized before any further discussion about the Wellington.
“Let’s separately consider whether land should be removed from the Preserve for houses (the Equestrian Preserve Committee said definitively NO),” she wrote. “Then, when GEG/Wellington International is ready, they should come back (to the Equestrian Preserve Committee to start all over) with a detailed plan for an expanded horse show that would accompany that separate rezoning request.”
Arellano said he wants to see more concrete plans for where dressage will go. “First they have to do that, finish it, and then say, ‘OK guys, here. You can move from here to here. Now we’re going to do our project.’ ”
Even then, he’s skeptical, as is Brennan.
She sees more people reconsidering new investments in their farms until the issues around the Wellington are resolved.
“Who’s going to invest?” Brennan said. “I’m thinking, do I put more millions into my 5 acres that I want to develop? And then, guess what? You get stagnant. You don’t go anywhere.”
Equestrian master plan
Before anything happens with the showgrounds or there is further residential or commercial development in the Equestrian Preserve Area, some equestrians say Wellington needs to create an equestrian master plan.
The plan could serve as a guiding document on which areas of the preserve would be appropriate for development, Cleveland said.
“I don’t know why we don’t have that exercise, rather than just react to somebody who wants to make money in a particular spot,” she said.
Wellington has discussed an equestrian master plan previously. The Equestrian Preserve Element of the comprehensive plan includes some information that could be part of a master plan, but opponents of the Wellington would like to see something more comprehensive – no pun intended.
Equestrian community rallies
The equestrian community is incredibly close-knit, McCullough said. She described massive holiday dinners for grooms and others in the equestrian service field, held at a leading competitor’s farm to provide horse show workers from out of town a place to gather. And she described how, with so many experts in so many fields here in one place, those experts step up to offer tutoring services to young equestrians.
“We’re a pretty close-knit community, and we know each other, and we know what we’re here for and the horses bring us together,” she said. “But there’s something else that happens besides the horses. There’s international friendships and respect that’s incredible.”
In the past, the community has rallied around those in need — injured riders, displaced staffers, young equestrians in need of guidance.
Now, some in the equestrian community find themselves rallying in opposition of the Wellington.
“Everybody has had a feeling of stewardship here,” McCullough said. “It’s amazing. And it’s still here.”
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