Wellington planning board postpones vote on controversial development project

Inside Wellington Lifestyle Partners’ office on South Shore Boulevard. [Kristina Webb]

In a bit of a surprise turn last week, Wellington’s Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board postponed its vote on the controversial Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club project, also known as The Wellington North and South.

Instead of voting following two lengthy nights of presentations and public comment, the board members moved to end their second night with a vote to push back their decisions about applications related to the project, moving closing statements, deliberation and voting to their Aug. 16 meeting.

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The marathon meeting — which began Wednesday night and extended into Thursday, running nearly to midnight each night — drew hundreds of mostly opponents who say the residential project will harm Wellington’s character and endanger its Equestrian Preserve Area by removing about 96 acres from the area’s boundaries.

But the project’s development team says the growth is in line with surrounding uses and necessary to help Wellington’s equestrian industry continue to grow and draw world-class competitors.

The meeting followed a contentious two-night session of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee in June, where that committee’s members voted unanimously to recommend denial of the project’s requests to the Village Council.

Much of the background is in this article is adapted from my past reporting. Last week, I released an exclusive three-part, in-depth report on the issues surrounding the Wellington. You can read those articles here:

The developers: Who are they, and why do they feel this is the right project for Wellington?

Ocala, Ocala, Ocala: I went to the World Equestrian Center to help you better understand why some equestrians say Wellington’s show grounds need a major overhaul to prevent competitors from leaving.

The opposition: Who are they, and why are they so vehemently opposed to this project?

Who are the developers?

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

A quick note here: NEXUS was founded in 2015 by billionaire entrepreneur and investor Joe Lewis and the company is part of Lewis’ Tavistock Group. NEXUS has the backing of big names like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Timberlake. Lewis has been indicted on insider trading charges in New York, according to an announcement made Tuesday night by U.S. Attorney Damian Lewis. I reached out to representatives for NEXUS to see if this indictment will have any affect on The Wellington. I’ll update this post when I receive a response. It’s still very early; this news just broke. And it may be completely irrelevant to this project.

Wellington Equestrian Partners is led 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.

The CEO of Wellington Lifestyle Partners is Doug McMahon, the co-founder of NEXUS. Paige Bellissimo, Mark Bellissimo’s daughter, is executive vice president and partner in Wellington Lifestyle Partners. She is a lifelong equestrian, and her father has cited her interest in equestrian sports as one of the primary reasons their family moved to Wellington in 2004 after commuting between Wellington and Massachusetts since 2000.

What is being proposed?

There are two main components: The Wellington North and The Wellington South.

The Wellington North covers about 100 acres on the northeast corner of Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard. The Wellington South sits on about 270 acres north of Gracida Way between South Shore Boulevard and Gene Mische Way.

The land that would become The Wellington North is now the former site of the Players Club; Equestrian Village, where the Global Dressage Festival is held; and two polo fields known as White Birch Farm. The former Players Club sits on about six acres that were approved for roughly 50 condo units as part of the Coach House project. Shortly before the land’s previous owner — businessman, philanthropist and polo player Neil Hirsch — died in 2021, Mark Bellissimo bought the land for $18 million.

Plans for The Wellington North 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

Plans for The Wellington South include:

  • 148 single-family homes
  • Five equestrian farm sites on the north side of the development
  • 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 has said.

While Wellington Lifestyle Partners’ presentation to the Equestrian Preserve Committee focused more on NEXUS’ plans, last week’s presentation focused more on a major component of the project: the proposed expansion of Wellington International.

Of the 270 acres south of Pierson Road and west of South Shore that are part of the project, 114 acres are directly south of Wellington International and proposed to change hands from companies owned by Bellissimo to Global Equestrian Group, which owns and operates the showgrounds.

[Photo by Kristina Webb]

Global Equestrian Group president Michael Stone spoke during the Wednesday night meeting, detailing some of the work that has been done since the EPC meeting to create more concrete plans to update and expand Wellington International.

The move would create one 190-acre central venue for dressage, hunters and jumpers, he said.

That 114 acres south of the current showgrounds is zoned for residential, so one of the applications before the planning board is to change the zoning to Wellington’s equestrian commercial recreation designation.

“What we want to do is have one large footprint that develops all sorts of synergies,” Stone said.

Global Equestrian Group recently hired architecture firm Populous to design the expanded showgrounds and redesign the current showgrounds, he said.

Populous director of equestrian services Todd Gralla said his firm is up to the task, calling Wellington “the ultimate mecca of equestrian sport.”

Gralla noted that Populous also designed the state-of-the-art facility for the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, which is majority-owned by Joe Lewis.

While Gralla acknowledged the site has challenges, he said he sees potential for a major new stadium with seating for 7,000 spectators, more climate-controlled facilities including barns, new restaurants, open-air arenas and more.

“We want to turn everything into something better than it has to be,” Gralla said.

What did they ask for?

The Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board is considering five requests from Wellington Lifestyle Partners:

  • To amend Wellington’s comprehensive plan to change the future land use of the 114 acres south of Wellington International from residential to equestrian commercial recreation; and to change the land use from a small, 6-acre piece of land right on the northwest corner on Lake Worth Road and South Shore Boulevard from commercial to residential.
  • To combine several pods of Wellington’s CountryPlace planned unit development into one to create The Wellington South; to transfer 11 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 148 units and an amenities area in The Wellington South; and to add one access point along South Shore Boulevard and two along Gracida Street. This resolution would also adopt a project standards manual for The Wellington South.
  • 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 remove the 96 acres that are White Birch Farms and Equestrian Village from the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District.
  • To amend Wellington’s master plan to combine the pods that make up The Wellington North into one pod; to assign 300 dwelling units to that pod, with 278 multi-family units and 22 single-family units; and to adopt a project standards manual for The Wellington North.

Is it weird for the board not to vote during the meeting?

OK, here’s the thing: Yes, it is a little unusual for a board or committee in Wellington not to vote on an agenda item during the same meeting where it’s heard. Just statistically, boards and committees usually vote on agenda items on the same night or the consecutive night, as with the EPC last month.

But it’s not unusual from an overall governmental perspective. It can be common — depending on a board’s rules and schedule — to postpone a decision, especially if a meeting is running long.

Wellington boards and committees have to vote to go past 11 p.m. I’ve covered meetings in Wellington that ran past 2 a.m. Aside from the Village Council, these are volunteer, appointed positions. These are people who have full-time jobs and families. It’s understandable that they may not always want to push past midnight with no guarantee of how long the remaining proceedings will take.

What is the Equestrian Preserve Area?

This map shows the Equestrian Preserve Area in light yellow, with bridle paths highlighted. The blue-and-white striped areas are the major equestrian competition venues: Wellington International, Equestrian Village, Grand Champions Polo Club and the International Polo Club. [Village of Wellington]

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 happens next?

When the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board meets on Aug. 16, the applicants and interested parties will deliver closing statements. That alone will take upwards of an hour.

Then the board will deliberate. No further public comment will be heard. The board closed the public hearing at the end of Thursday night’s meeting.

Did you miss last week’s meeting? Click here to watch Wednesday night’s session, and here to watch Thursday’s night’s session.


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