The development team behind a controversial project in Wellington has made major changes to its plans – including submitting initial plans for expanded equestrian showgrounds – as the project heads to the Village Council this week in the face of opposition.
The updated plans for the Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club – from developers Wellington Lifestyle Partners, which is Wellington Equestrian Partners, including Mark and Paige Bellissimo, and NEXUS Luxury Collection – will be reviewed by the council during what could be a three-night meeting beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday, with time scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. Review of the project stretched across two nights when it went before the Equestrian Preserve Committee and three nights before the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board.
In the past two weeks, the group also submitted plans to the village for an expanded Wellington International equestrian showgrounds, a sticking point early in the development application process for the Wellington as the Equestrian Preserve Committee decried the project moving forward without concrete plans to review for that expansion and a promised new home for dressage competition. The Village Council will not yet officially review the plans for the showgrounds, but those watching can expect those plans to be mentioned as part of presentations and public comment.
For more information about the Wellington North and South, read my three-part, in-depth report on the issues surrounding The Wellington:
What changed and what’s new?
Some of the most radical changes have been made to plans for the Wellington North, the roughly 100-acre property on the northeast corner of Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard that is currently home to the Global Dressage Festival grounds.
Where the previous iteration of the plan included 278 multi-family units in 12 buildings, 22 single-family homes, a 56,000-square-foot clubhouse, a dog park and more, the new pitch includes 48 custom home lots and up to 48 townhomes.
The Wellington North has drawn significant opposition because it calls for the removal of about 96 acres of land from Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area. Click here to read more about the opposition, Wellington’s history and the EPA. Those who oppose the project say that would be the first step as developers look to chip off pieces of the Equestrian Preserve Area for residential or commercial development.
The Wellington South – on the west side of South Shore between Pierson and Lake Worth roads – also has seen changes ahead of Tuesday night’s council meeting, going from an initial 137 single-family homes with five of those on 5-acre lots, to 109 lots ranging from .5 to an acre in size and five 4-acre farms.
In a letter delivered to Wellington residents over the weekend, Wellington Lifestyle Partners CEO and managing partner Doug McMahon – of NEXUS – and executive vice president and partner Paige Bellissimo – whose father, Mark Bellissimo, owns the properties in question through his companies – noted that there are development entitlements across their properties for 205 units. The new request is for an additional five.
“This is a process,” McMahon said in a phone interview last week. There is an official process and an unofficial process, he said: The official process involves development applications and multiple reviews by village boards. The unofficial process happens with talking with residents, business owners and other community stakeholders, he said.
“We’re just meeting with scores and scores of people over the last year, and we’re human beings,” he said. “We are listening, and we are modifying, and we’ve made modifications throughout the process. I will say the modifications we made in the last few weeks clearly are much more dramatic and part of that was a decision on our part that we care about Wellington.
“We’re attracted to Wellington because it is Wellington, and we do want Wellington to stay Wellington,” he said. “We just want it to be more vital, and stronger.”
The showgrounds expansion would cover nearly 115 acres directly south of the current showgrounds. That land is currently zoned residential, with up to 62 dwelling units allowed there. Wellington Lifestyle Partners in their applications for the Wellington have requested that land be rezoned as equestrian commercial recreation, to allow for the larger competition grounds.
A site plan submitted to the village for a compatibility determination includes:
- A 87,500-square-foot international arena with an adjoining international schooling ring.
- A 230,000-square-foot grass derby field with adjoining grass derby schooling ring.
- A restaurant with 210 seats.
- VIP hospitality areas at 1,500 seats.
- 1,340 stalls across 341,000 square feet of barns and stables.
- 1,722 parking spaces.
- A sand lunging ring.
- Four schooling rings.
- Three competition rings.
- A jumper ring.
Why showgrounds expansion, and why now?
The aging Wellington International showgrounds are overdue for expansion and modernization, the development team has said. The plans also would consolidate dressage with hunter-jumper events – a move that would help to preserve the lower-revenue generating dressage’s presence in Wellington, the team has said.
McMahon and Paige Bellissimo and their consulting team have said from the first Equestrian Preserve Committee meeting that their intent was to have the showgrounds expansion be part of the overall project. They described it to the EPC as essentially three moving pieces of the same puzzle.
However, EPC members – who are equestrians themselves – lambasted the team for not having a development application for that expansion that could move through the development approval process in conjunction with the plans for the Wellington. Opponents told the EPC they feared the project could be “a bait and switch,” with the dressage grounds lost and not replaced elsewhere, in favor of more lucrative residential development.
While Wellington Lifestyle Partners balked at that suggestion, they have admitted since that everything should have moved through Wellington’s approval process together.
“Our application has always been about the two projects,” Paige Bellissimo told me in August following the planning board meeting, where board members said they wanted to see a more clearly defined path to the new showgrounds. “I think we started EPC with a big void. Our presentation did not reflect the two projects equally. So when we came back to PZAB, together with Wellington International, we did a lot of work with Populous (the architect hired to design the showgrounds) to make those plans a reality.”
In designing the showgrounds, the team looked at “what makes Wellington, Wellington, and what makes it so special,” said Bellissimo, who grew up in Wellington and who continues to compete in equestrian sports.
Since the EPC, Wellington Lifestyle Partners also took a larger financial interest in the redevelopment of the showgrounds, McMahon confirmed. Part of that is thanks to a condition to which the development team agreed during the planning board meetings, where no permits can be issued for the Wellington North until dressage competitions are licensed to begin at Wellington International.
“We’re stepping up to finance and commit to building it,” McMahon said. “We’ll take charge of the development based upon the plan that we’ve been working on with Populous (the architecture firm working on the showgrounds expansion) and the Wellington International Group as well.”
“I think agreeing to the voluntary condition speaks to seeing the new showgrounds really coming to fruition before dressage is relocated anywhere,” Paige Bellissimo said. “That’s a really important component that kind of ties the two projects. Since there are separate applications, the voluntary condition I think gives the trust that it’s all gonna happen together, and the horse show will happen first before the residential.”
Now with those plans submitted to Wellington, the development could have a better chance of seeing success before the Village Council, said insiders who spoke with me about the project.
Should the Wellington not proceed, there may not be a path forward for the showgrounds expansion, McMahon said.
Two preservation groups share opposition
Opponents of the Wellington received a boost in recent weeks as two groups sent letters of concern about the project to the Village Council.
In a letter dated Sept. 11, the growth management advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida urged the Village Council to deny the project’s applications.
Calling the Equestrian Preserve Area “a gem of thoughtful planning to protect rural lifestyles in an area of the state that is facing incredible growth pressures,” 1000 Friends of Florida’s president Paul Owens wrote that removing the 96 acres from the EPA would degrade Wellington’s unique qualities.
“Decision makers in Wellington need to look no further than the Agricultural Reserve to your south to see how compromises, deal-making and negotiating away the protection promised for agricultural land can be an irreversible trend that builds on the precedent of short-sighted planning decisions,” Owens wrote.
A coalition of opponents paid for the letter to be printed as a full-page ad in the Town-Crier and Palm Beach Post newspapers in late September.
Another group, the South Florida Wildlands Association, produced a report sharing environmental concerns about the project, particularly about the Wellington South.
“Based on our research presented in this letter, we respectfully ask the Wellington Village Council to deny the applicant’s request to construct massive equestrian showgrounds and luxury homes and villas on the unique Wellington South site,” wrote South Florida Wildlands Association executive director Matthew Schwartz. “We believe this project will bring an assortment of direct and indirect negative impacts to Wellington, its unique Equestrian Protection Area, its wetlands, aquifers, nearby public lands, and its wildlife.”
The development also could have implications when it comes to wetlands on the property, the letter said.
There could be other major implications for drainage and future flooding issues, Schwartz wrote. “Losing this amount of water retention in an area adjacent to dense developments could prove catastrophic for neighboring homes and developments,” he said.
According to a report from Air Mail, the South Florida Wildlands Association report was paid for by opponents of the project.
Both sides reach out to community
The developers and opponents have done significant public outreach, through email, traditional mail, social media and the press.
Opponents have formed coalitions to fight the project, with social media accounts and petitions that have garnered thousands of followers and signatures.
More activity has been seen from Wellington Lifestyle Partners – both on social media and with the letter to residents that was received this past weekend – leading up to the Village Council meeting.
In the letter to residents sent by Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the developers listed benefits to the community that would include an estimated additional $50 million in property tax revenue for Wellington over the next 10 years.
The letter also cites the $6 million investment in traffic mitigation along South Shore Boulevard and Lake Worth and Pierson roads that would be included if the project is approved.
Where is Mark Bellissimo?
In the Air Mail report, it was noted that Mark Bellissimo has not attended any of the development review meetings before the Equestrian Preserve Committee or the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board.
Why? He has taken more of a back seat in this project, letting his daughter and business partners take the lead, Paige Bellissimo said.
“It’s really been Doug and I, day to day,” she said, adding that her father has been more active behind the scenes, watching the process and providing input and feedback.
Mark Bellissimo has a complicated history in Wellington.
While many credit him with improving and growing the standing of equestrian sports in Wellington, others decry his attempts to develop the land that is the Global Dressage Festival and would be the Wellington North.
In past attempts to develop that land, Bellissimo pitched a number of ideas, including restaurants, shops and a hotel. The hotel concept drew such ire from some in the community that they proposed a referendum – which passed in 2016 – that says there can be no construction of hotels, condominiums, motels and apartments from within the Equestrian Preserve Area.
Paige Bellissimo said that she wasn’t especially a fan of her father’s past proposals for the northeast corner of Pierson and South Shore – but the Wellington North in particular, with its club, residential and showgrounds components, “really resonated.”
“That made sense to me,” she said. “I wanted to come back to live in Wellington. This is a really special, unique community and my husband and I knew this is where we want to raise our family. So being able to have a small part in the growth of Wellington and trying to make sure that it is good growth and that it matches the character of Wellington, and maintains its charm, was really important to me and my family.”
What have boards recommended?
The Equestrian Preserve Committee voted unanimously in June to recommend denial of the project’s applications to the Village Council. That meeting took place across two nights.
The Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board took three nights between July and August to hear and make a recommending vote on the applications. The board voted:
- 5-2 to recommend approval of a comprehensive plan amendment to change the land use on the property south of the Wellington International showgrounds from residential to equestrian commercial recreation, and to change the land use of about 6 acres on the northwest corner of South Shore Boulevard and Lake Worth Road from commercial to residential.
- 6-1 to recommend approval of a master plan amendment for the Wellington South, with recommendations that Welington Lifestyle Partners should cut the number of units and increase lot sizes, and that an updated site plan and project standards manual should be provided to the Village Council.
- 5-2 for the three applications related to the Wellington North, to recommend the council either deny the application without prejudice, or table the application until the compatibility determination for the show grounds expansion south of Wellington International is submitted to the village and has been reviewed by both Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee and the Planing, Zoning and Adjustments Board, so the council can review that application alongside the three Wellington North applications.
What happens next?
The Village Council will hear presentations and public comment on the applications beginning Tuesday, Oct. 10. The council is scheduled to meet Oct. 11-12 if necessary.
Expect each meeting to be packed. Arrive early to get a seat. There will be an overflow room if you arrive late.
You also may watch the meeting and submit comments online in advance. For more information, go to www.wellingtonfl.gov.
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