Redefined: A Village and its Priorities
Expansive green space in the Village of Wellington may soon undergo a concrete revolution.
In the late evening hours of November 16, 2023, and after several long nights of meetings inside the Wellington Village Hall, three council members as well as the mayor and vice-mayor, addressed the public and voted on a recent proposal to modify the Equestrian Preserve Area (EPA) boundary, removing 96.17 acres within the Equestrian Village and White Birch Farms.
Up until that point, no one knew for certain which way the vote would ultimately go. In fact, and in nights prior, the Council listened — quite earnestly, it seemed — to passionate testimony by Wellington residents and equestrians.
Inside the crowded room, many attendees wore bright red shirts that read “Vote No” as they spoke to the five elected members, detailing why a proposal to remove land could not go through, citing previous zoning agreements, density, safety issues, environmental impacts, and more. Arguments centered on not only emotional appeals, but logic and genuine concern that Wellington would change — indefinitely — into something it was never intended to be.
On one side of the room, the applicant, Wellington Lifestyle Partners (WLP), and a small minority of people in favor of the proposal, argued that Wellington must grow —and grow big — or risk becoming obsolete, perhaps even losing it’s status to places like the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.
Ocala, a rural but growing city in North Central Florida, was mentioned several times during the meetings. But even as comparisons were made between the two, Ocala and the Village of Wellington are vastly different places. And, yet, the narrative persisted. In fact, according to both supporters and opponents of the new development proposal, if the Village Council voted in favor or against, Ocala could possibly become the new hub for international equestrian sport.
In a Wall Street Journal article dated back to March of this year, Wellington developer and entrepreneur, Mark Bellissimo of WLP, cited competition from Ocala in order to gather community support for greater expansion throughout the EPA.
On the flip side, local equestrians and those opposed to new development, made similar claims about Ocala, but for entirely different reasons. According to Lauren Brody, Wellington equestrian and realtor, she believes the local horse community will slowly disappear if the plans move forward. “People will start to move to Ocala or Palm City and commute to the show,” she explained. “We don't want to live or show in a multi-year construction zone. We don't want more traffic and we do not want dressage and hunter/jumper together.”
Ms. Brody, who was in attendance all three nights of the Village Council meetings, in addition to several Council meetings earlier in the year, has long been a vocal opponent to new development in the preserve area. Her greatest fear, she explained, is the precedent set and risk for more overdevelopment. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “If the council lets land out of the EPA, developers are coming for the rest.”
So when the Council members began their closing statements and subsequent vote, Ms. Brody, as well as the majority in the room that night, was not only devastated and confused, she was in shock.
Councilman Michael Drahos, who is not seeking reelection, spoke first. For 24 minutes, and before voting yes on the proposal, he voiced his justification using several arguments, one of which was centered on the thousands of residents he represents. “I do represent 60,000 people,” he said to the room. “There’s a demographic that I don’t think was well represented in this process, it’s the one, quite frankly, that got me elected— the young professional of Wellington.”
“In my experience in dealing with those folks,” he continued, “they don’t agree with a lot of you.”
Yet, despite this revelation, the views heard not only at the meetings but through petitions and online posts have been overwhelmingly opposed to Mr. Bellissimo’s plan. And while it’s true that many residents do not have the time or ability to attend in-person local government meetings, as Mr. Drahos claimed, anyone can and is encouraged to email public comments directly to council members regarding developmental proposals. Of the public comments emailed and read during the meetings, only a small fraction voiced support for the applicant.
Mayor Anne Gerwig, who will be termed out in spring, is running as a Republican for State Representative District 93. She also voted to approve the proposal, citing in her closing comments past successful developments and the need for new sports complexes. “It hasn’t been easy for me,” she told the room. “It would be easy for me to say ‘no’ just so I could get the crowds to say ‘oh she’s great’ but I’ve never operated that way. I’ve always done what I thought was right.”
Ironically, however, Vice-Mayor Michael J. Napoleone, who is currently running for Mayor of Wellington, was the sole council member to vote against the proposal, pointing out concerns from constituents and lack of specifics provided by the applicant regarding capital as well as the state of the application itself. His vote came in direct contradiction to Mayor Gerwig.
“Horses Not Houses”
It’s a catch-phrase commonly seen and heard from residents in Wellington, but there’s a significant — albeit historical meaning — behind those words.
Not long after the Village of Wellington was incorporated on December 31, 1995, Ken Adams, Wellington pioneer and former Palm Beach County Commissioner and equestrian, worked with the Florida Legislature, the Wellington Council and village residents to set aside space within Wellington for equestrians and their horses — totaling 9,000 acres of woodlands, pastures, lakes and waterways, show grounds, bridle paths, polo fields, and low-density housing.
Low-density housing and limited commercial space is, perhaps, key to keeping the EPA green, open and hospitable to horses. Ken Adams believed that to be true and so did Wellington residents and previous Village Councils. Several years ago, in fact, there was a proposal to change zoning regulations in the EPA (Mr. Bellissimo wanted to build a luxury hotel) and that proposal was soundly defeated.) And during the March 2016 election, residents voted to ban hotels, condos and apartments in the preserve entirely.
The dispute in Wellington is, at its core, about overdevelopment and removing land from the Equestrian Preserve Area. But it’s also rooted in mistrust. Depending on who you talk to in the local community, Mr. Bellissimo is either celebrated for his entrepreneurial achievements within Wellington including purchasing and operating the Winter Equestrian Festival or he is scorned for being a greedy developer, hellbent on doing what he wants — and where he wants — despite resident opposition and previous land zoning agreements. His latest proposal — The Wellington North and The Wellington South — is arguably the most ambitious yet to go before the Council.
Mr. Bellissimo, one of the biggest property owners in Wellington, has been on record over the years detailing his plans for expansion in the region. So these new developments playing out should be of no surprise to those paying attention. What has been surprising, to be sure, is the Council’s support for the proposal and the sudden shift to reshape the Village of Wellington.
For residents like Ms. Brody, the vote wasn’t just surprising, it was a betrayal of trust. “I met with all of them and not one said they planned to do whatever they wanted and not take the viewpoint of the constituents into account,” she said.
“And to sit through three nights of the Equestrian Preserve Committee and then three nights of PZAB and to hear all the interested parties and important groups speak against the applications, only to watch the Council go rogue and vote for it,” she continued. “Nothing makes sense.”
For much of the last two decades, the Village Council found ways to partner with developers while also working with the public toward conservation of green spaces and better preservation of the land. In 2018, Councilman Michael Drahos told members of the community that he would not support a Broward County developers plan to build 200 homes on a former golf course north of Forest Hill Boulevard if residents did not approve of it.
“I advised them,” Drahos said to residents about the developer, 13th Floor, “I would not support it absent of overwhelming support from you all.”
In a 2022 Around Wellington article, Councilman John McGovern boasted about voting to expand the Equestrian Preserve Area as well as supporting venues that rely on it. “The Equestrian Preserve is uniquely Wellington and we should continue to protect it,” he told the publication.
Recently, however, several large-scale projects in Wellington have been completed or are in the works, including a $38 million athletic training complex, Wellington Bay, The Quaye at Wellington, and the long-awaited Lotis Wellington I and II, a mixed-use venture with apartments, senior independent living units, and an assisted living community. Not to mention, the upcoming sale and commercial development of K-Park, a 66 acre plot of land owned by the Village of Wellington.
Without a doubt, developers will keep coming and they’ll come for every inch they can get. But not all development is bad, especially as communities grow and change. The need for housing and new schools, for example, are critical in Wellington and South Florida in general. And the concept of ‘redevelopment’ or reimagining older structures — although disrupting —does remain favorable with the public since it allows both progress and preservation to occur simultaneously. In this case, however, that is not what’s happening.
What is happening is that the Village of Wellington is transitioning — quite rapidly, one might say — from a quiet bedroom community with a vibrant horse industry into something faster-paced and more commercially driven.
With regards to the equestrian preserve, and as luxury housing, golf clubs and retail projects appear to advance, Mr. Drahos believes the Village Council is doing everyone — and specifically equestrians — a favor. “I believe that it’s the Council’s job to save the equestrian industry from its own self-destruction,” he told residents at the November meeting.
Community members will have another chance to address these comments and more during the January meeting at Village Hall. Public comments regarding The Wellington North and The Wellington South proposal can also be made here.
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