WELLINGTON – One part of Mark Belissimo’s plan to develop single-family homes, condominiums and a private country club in Wellington’s equestrian preserve is facing pushback. This time, the opposition is from one of the state’s leading nonprofit advocates for growth management.
1000 Friends of Florida announced last week that it opposes the development of The Wellington North, a luxury neighborhood proposed on the corner of South Shore Boulevard and Pierson Road. The project would require the removal of 96 acres from the 9,000-acre equestrian preserve.
The Florida nonprofit said in a public letter that taking land out of the preserve would set a precedent for future development in the area.
“It is the quintessential “death by a thousand paper cuts”,” wrote Paul Owens, the president of 1000 Friends of Florida. It has not yet taken a position on The Wellington South, the second half of the proposal.
1000 Friends of Florida posted the letter in the form of an advertisement in Wednesday’s editions of The Palm Beach Post. Its appearance comes as the Wellington Village Council has scheduled three days of meetings on The Wellington project. The meetings will begin at 6 p.m. Oct. 10-12.
Attempts to reach Wellington Lifestyle Partners, a company created by Bellissimo and the international real estate company Nexus Luxury Collection to build the two-section project, were unsuccessful.
Wellington Lifestyle Partners is seeking to build The Wellington, two high-end communities that would be built close to a promised expansion of the Wellington International equestrian competition grounds.
For Wellington North, the company is seeking to rezone properties on the corner of South Shore and Pierson — known as Coach House, White Birch and Equestrian Village — to build 300 residences including 22 single-family homes and 278 condominiums.
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Owens wrote in the letter that it is an “unfortunate reality” in Florida that degradation to “unique” communities like Wellington often occurs by incremental changes. He said it is seemingly small exceptions that could ultimately undo protections for the equestrian preserve.
“Every time you make an exception to a promise that you’ve made for preservation, even if it’s a small exception, it weakens that promise,” Owens said. “At some point, it could compromise the designation and the preservation could collapse.”
Wellington established the Equestrian Preserve in 2000 to limit development in the neighborhoods on its rural southwest corner, which has become home to horse farms, ranches and competition venues.
In 2002, it created the 9,000-acre Equestrian Preserve Zoning Overlay District to establish development regulations that would ensure the preservation of green spaces, limit commercial uses and maintain the low density of the area.
The Wellington is the third attempt by Bellissimo, whose companies have long run the Winter Equestrian Festival, to build a large project within the equestrian preserve. He has said the area needs to grow to compete with other equestrian venues, such as those near Ocala and Sarasota.
He submitted plans in 2012 to build a commercial area and a hotel next to his dressage arena on the corner of South Shore and Pierson. Four years later, he filed an application to build another hotel, this time next to Wellington International.
The 2016 proposal led to record-breaking participation in village elections and a vote where residents barred hotels, motels, and apartments from the equestrian preserve.
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Last year, Wellington Lifestyle Partners also submitted a separate application to place a hotel and a commercial area with shops and restaurants next to the proposed Wellington North. Plans for the “equestrian downtown” however, haven’t been updated since last year.
Many village residents have said they fear the project would transform the preserve’s characteristic quiet, green spaces and low-density housing. The letter from 1000 Friends echoed those concerns.
“These planning efforts were adopted to create and conserve the open space that is obviously necessary for an equine-based community,” Owens wrote.
1000 Friends of Florida, founded in 1987, advocates for what it calls sustainable, equitable communities and environmental conservation in Florida.
Owens said the organization is concerned with the threat to lands throughout Florida that have been designated either for conservation or preservation.
In the letter, 1000 Friends of Florida described Wellington’s equestrian preserve as a “gem of thoughtful planning” to protect rural lifestyle in an area of the state that is facing “incredible growth pressures.”
Owens said the equestrian preserve is a defining feature of Wellington. “And the fact that it’s so rare in Florida is part of what makes it so special,” he said. “It reflects a decision, a plan made by residents that reflects the will of the community.
“It’s a covenant within the community that should not be violated.”
The nonprofit’s board voted to oppose the request by Wellington Lifestyle Partners to amend the village’s comprehensive plan by rezoning properties, and removing 96 acres out of the preserve and relocating its border to start south of South Shore Boulevard.
Owens said that undoing a portion of that land’s conservation designation, even if it is only 1%, to enable development weakens the protections that the village has set and poses a threat to similar properties within that conservation area and nearby land.
When exceptions are made for developers, Owens added, it creates momentum for other property owners to do the same.
“I think that would create a stronger foundation for somebody else who’s in a similar situation,” Owens said. “Why can’t I do that? You already made an exception for this other person.”
In the letter, 1000 Friends of Florida compared Wellington Lifestyle Partners’ request to the compromises county officials have made for developers to build in Palm Beach County’s Agricultural Reserve.
Owens said negotiating away the protection promised for land can be an irreversible trend that builds on precedent for planning decisions.
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“I think anytime that deals like these are made that result in development of land that had been promised for conservation, it’s a threat to conservation land, everywhere,” Owens said.
The nonprofit also urged the Village Council to follow the Equestrian Preserve Committee’s unanimous recommendation to deny the land and zoning changes.
“We strongly urge you to hold the (Equestrian Preserve Area’s) recommendation and honor the commitment made to land conservation in the EPA by opposing this comprehensive plan amendment.”
Valentina Palm covers Royal Palm Beach, Wellington, Loxahatchee and other western communities in Palm Beach County for The Palm Beach Post. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValenPalmB. Support local journalism: Subscribe today.