There’s no denying it: The plans for the Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club, also known as the Wellington North and South, are ambitious.
To learn more about the project, I combed through hundreds of pages of Wellington documents and talked with members of the development team.
The project could be the most consequential development application to come before Wellington in nearly 10 years.
The Wellington got off to a rough start last month, with the village’s Equestrian Preserve Committee voting unanimously to recommend denial of the plans. Now the project heads to the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board in what is expected to be a two-night meeting that begins at 7 p.m. July 19.
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:
The proposal has left Wellington residents and equestrians split: If development happens, where should it be? How should it be done? And what is needed?
The members of Wellington Lifestyle Partners say their vision is a great fit for Wellington. Not only because it allows for the expansion of the Wellington International showgrounds on Pierson Road, but also because it fits into Wellington’s history, while helping to define its future.
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. Tavistock was founded by noted entrepreneur and investor Joe Lewis.
The CEO of Wellington Lifestyle Partners is Doug McMahon, the co-founder of NEXUS.
Mark Bellissimo’s daughter, Paige Bellissimo, is executive vice president and partner of Wellington Lifestyle Partners. She grew up in Wellington and is a lifelong equestrian.
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.
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.
A major investment is planned for the Pete Dye-designed Cypress course, to bring it up to championship-level status, McMahon said.
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 in the Wellington North and South would be higher-end, luxury homes and condominiums, on par with other properties in NEXUS’ portfolio, McMahon has said.
As part of the applications, the developers would be required to make cash contributions to Wellington and the Palm Beach County School District to cover the impact on utilities, roads and schools.
Equestrian Preserve Area
To understand the project, it’s important to understand Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area, its purpose, size and history.
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. This part of the proposal has faced major opposition as some residents and equestrians say no land should be removed from the preserve.
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.
While opponents say removing land from the Equestrian Preserve would create a slippery slope, the development team said their project would actually meet the goal of helping to preserve the equestrian lifestyle and sports in Wellington.
“We would just submit that everthing that we’re proposing is wholly consistent with preserving the equestrian lifestyle and enhancing it, making the showgrounds larger, more vital and creating a complementary community that adds to the lifestyle and makes the marketplace more attractive for people to invest more and spend more time in Wellington,” McMahon said.
Growing Wellington International
A major criticism of the development group’s presentation at the Equestrian Preserve Committee meeting was that there were not more details or an application submitted to Wellington to renovate and expand Wellington International.
The team heard those concerns loud and clear, Paige Bellissimo said.
“We heard you,” Bellissimo said, referring to opponents of the project. “We spent the last couple weeks working with GEG and Wellington International and Populous to make sure that we had a conceptual plan to see what we’re all dreaming up together.”
Some of the details of that plan were revealed in a July 15 news release by Wellington International. In the news release, Wellington International president Michael Stone announced that Populous, a renowned sports-venue architecture firm, had been hired as the architect of record for the expansion and renovation project.
Hunter-jumpers draw about 3,000 horses per week during season, and dressage draws about 300 weekly competitors, he said.
Populous has an equestrian division that brings the experience Wellington International needs to create a thoughtful design that meets the needs of all three disciplines in one 190-acre facility, Stone told me in an interview.
“We really felt that we needed somebody who was at the top of the tree when it comes to project development and master planning, and all those elements that go into it,” he said. “Populous came it at the top of the tree.”
Since Mark Bellissimo first pitched a concept for the Wellington, then known as Wellington 3.0, late last year, the development team has cited a need to compete with the growing equestrian sport industry in Marion County near Ocala.
“They are serious opposition, and if you don’t move forward, you go backward,” Stone said. “There’s no way we can stay as we are. We have to improve.”
While there has been major opposition to the residential and commercial portions of the Wellington, all seem to be able to agree that the current showgrounds are in need of a large-scale update and more room.
Tight quarters are something Paige Bellissimo said she experienced as a competitor in Wellington.
“It wasn’t a good experience for me showing at WEF anymore because everything was so congested and there was no room,” she said. “This plan allows kind of the best of both worlds.”
The concept for Wellington International includes:
- Bringing all three disciplines to one site.
- Adding parking.
- Building a new stadium venue with expanded VIP seating.
- Adding nine rings, including two covered arenas.
- Building a derby field.
- Creating more permanent stables.
- Constructing a new area for the International Federation for Equestrian Sports.
To bring an application to the village for the development and renovation, Wellington International first would need to develop detailed supporting documents, including engineering work and more that could cost upwards of half a million dollars, Stone said.
Global Equestrian Group has a deal to buy the 90 acres south of Wellington International. That land right now belongs to a company controlled by Bellissimo. The sale is dependent upon approval of part of the Wellington’s application that includes rezoning that 90 acres from residential to commercial equestrian, Stone said.
“We weren’t about to spend $500,000 or $600,000 on something that we don’t even know whether we’re going to get,” Stone said. “We have to be realistic and understand exactly what we can do and what we can’t do.”
Populous’ head of equestrian services will be at the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board meeting to present the initial concepts for Wellington International, Stone said.
“I think what’s happened most since that last meeting, there’s been a tremendous amount of energy and mobilization on Michael Stone’s part and Wellington International and Global Equestrian Group, that we’ve been working hand-in-hand with them,” McMahon said. “We want the same outcome. This is really for the good of the horse sport industry in Wellington.”
What have they asked for?
Since the Equestrian Preserve Committee meeting in June, the development team tweaked its applications. For the Wellington South proposal, they dropped their request for a higher-density zoning designation that would have allowed to one to three residential units per acre instead of one residential unit per acre, records show. They also forfeited 51 units that had been in the overall planned-unit development, called the Wellington Country Place PUD.
Here is the agenda for the planning board meeting, with details about the developers’ requests.
Why is the development needed?
Between the Wellington North and South proposal and expansion and renovation of Wellington International, the village’s equestrian industry hangs in the balance, Stone said.
“It’s the long-term viability of Wellington as the Horse Sport Capital of the World,” he said. “If you think about the amount of jobs, the tax base that’s created by the equestrians — with very little take from the government — it’s very much a net positive for the people in Wellington.”
Not expanding Wellington International in the short-term may be feasible, but it would damage Wellington in the long-term as competitors look elsewhere for more space and less-crowded showgrounds, Stone said.
“You really have to keep moving up and onwards,” he said. “Otherwise, you die, you atrophy, and we do not want that to happen.”
Over the past two years, Global Equestrian Group has spent about $9 million at Wellington International, Stone said, for projects including drainage, landscaping and fencing, shade structures over most of the rings, new judges’ boxes, updated sound system and rubber walkways for horses.
More needs to be done, he said.
“Whatever happens, we’re going to keep going, keep improving,” Stone said.
Real estate and equestrian sports have always worked together in Wellington to create an economic engine, McMahon said. The Wellington and Wellington International would continue that tradition, he said.
“There’s a symbiotic relationship between Grand Prix Village and Palm Beach Point, Equestrian Club Estates and individual farms, and Palm Beach Polo,” MacMahon said. “There’s always been the horse venues that drive the value of the real estate, and the need for the real estate.”
When it comes to real estate, the team has been candid: There are long-standing entitlements to develop residential on the parcels of the Wellington South. The current plan is to set a maximum of 148 units, records show.
“That’s the order of magnitude that we need the south parcel to play in and participate in for us to be able to underwrite the totality of the investment that we’re trying to make in the creation of a residential and small farm club community,” McMahon said.
For the Wellington North, the team feels that the residential uses are in line with the surrounding properties, which include multi-family and single-family homes in Palm Beach Polo to the north and east, and commercial across South Shore to the west.
McMahon also said that removing the Wellington North property from the Equestrian Preserve makes sense because it juts north of Pierson and east of South Shore, in a way that only one other property, Black Watch Farms, does. Wellington’s staff came to the same conclusion, a decision that angered the project’s opponents. But staff said that if land was to be removed, it would make sense to do it along that boundary where the land is surrounded by non-equestrian uses.
“We think we have good precedent for that in that it’s north of Pierson Road and originally, that was highly residential,” McMahon said, adding, “There’s always been vibrant venues and excellent real estate, and they work hand-in-hand together to create the vitality of Wellington and the horse sport industry.”
‘A different approach’
Heading into this week’s meeting — or meetings — the development team has taken “a different approach” to its presentation, McMahon said.
Stone and the representative from Populous will present, along with McMahon and the group’s land-use attorney, McMahon said.
“We’re trying to create a pathway to establish the new expanded showgrounds, and we’re trying to create a pathway to develop the south parcel with small farms and residential lots,” he said. “And then we’re gonna try to create a pathway to remove the north parcel from the EOZD, and there’ll be a gasp, but we’re gonna try to look at that with fresh eyes.”
Wellington’s equestrian industry needs to evolve, Paige Bellissimo said.
“It’s adapting to changing conditions,” she said. “And that’s what rezoning is all about. That’s why rezoning is allowed. And it’s not only allowed, but governments and counties are supposed to look at it. It’s required.”
McMahon said it’s been hard to hear from opponents that the project will destroy the equestrian lifestyle.
“If anything, what has attracted us to Wellington is the horse sport industry,” he said. “And that’s what has created the opportunity to make an investment and actually be an enablement to allow Wellington International to … double the size of the showgrounds for the good of the horse sport industry, the good of the village.”
In addition to making a major economic contribution to Wellington in what could be $10 million in property taxes, McMahon said the Wellington will establish a community impact fund that puts $2 million to $3 million into the community each year. NEXUS has launched the fund at some of its other properties and made contributions to local nonprofits and scholarship funds, he said.
“What attracted us to Wellington is all of Wellington, and all of the Wellingtonians,” McMahon said. “A big part of that is the horse sport industry and the equestrian community. We would want to do nothing to denigrate those two things.”
Looking back, Paige Bellissimo said she feels now like the team should have “led with the equestrian story.”
“That was the mistake on our part,” she said. “So for me, I knew that was an essential part of the plan the whole time. … For me and for a lot of my equestrian friends, they are all so excited about the showgrounds.”
SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER!
Get on the list now for my free Weekly Wellington Mom newsletter, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday with the latest news and things to do in Wellington and the surrounding area.