WELLINGTON — Mark Bellissimo’s team has talked more about houses than horses as it’s tried to win approval for its plan to transform hundreds of acres in Wellington’s equestrian preserve.
The developer’s team has told the village it needs to build about 400 luxury residences and a hotel in the preserve, where they’re not permitted now, to afford an overhaul of Wellington’s showgrounds, where Bellissimo’s companies have long staged the Winter Equestrian Festival.Renderings shown to the village’s planning board this month — before crowds that packed the village hall and stayed past 11 p.m. on two nights — finally hinted at the size and scale of the new horse center, although Bellissimo has not yet filed any formal plans with the village.
Its absence from Bellissimo’s plans in part led the village’s equestrian committee to recommend dismissal of his proposed development, called The Wellington.
Now the planning board is considering making the prompt construction of the new showgrounds a condition of any recommendation it gives to the village council, which will have the final say over the project. The planning board is scheduled to take up the issue again on Aug. 16.
Board members and those who spoke at the marathon meetings July 19 and 20 noted the addition of the horse venue to the discussion but expressed concerns about the precedents The Wellington would set even with it.
Some feared its approval could help price local riders and even more residents out of the village, where home prices have risen sharply in recent years.
Wellington Lifestyle Partners — the company Bellissimo’s team has created to seek approval for the project —– is “seeking to make the village the playground for the rich and force ordinary people out,” said Riley Kaminski, a Wellington resident.
“What about the competitors and the people who are not in the high end, who want to compete and live in Wellington. Do we not matter?”
New showgrounds key to corporate financial support, official says
Representatives from Wellington Lifestyle Partners revealed the first blueprints for the new horse center, one that would consolidate all equestrian sports in one location, at the corner of South Shore and Lake Worth Road.
Michael Stone, the president of the Wellington International equestrian complex, said the industry has outgrown the local showgrounds and that the venues need major investments.
He said a “world-class” expansion is necessary for the industry to grow in Wellington and to compete with venues, such as those in Ocala, where large horse facilities, complete with hotels, have been built in recent years.
Corporations like those that have moved to Palm Beach County recently are more likely to spend their money elsewhere than at Wellington’s aging showgrounds, Stone said.
“At the moment we can’t get major companies, and a lot of them are coming to Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, big banks, big hedge funds, big corporations,” Stone said. “They don’t really want to bring their guests to attend a venue that is a bit rough around the edges, rather than come to a proper corporate hospitality venue, so we can drive that business significantly.”
WLP hired Populous, an architecture firm that has built stadiums and venues in several countries, to create the first renderings of the horse center.
Todd Gralla, Populous’ director of equestrian services, said the proposed facility would double the showgrounds at Wellington International, feature a stadium with 7,000 seats and increase stable and parking areas.
Stone said the new facility would include air-conditioned suites, more vendor spaces and expanded hospitality offerings for guests, like restaurants. He added having all the sports in one location would make the season safer, rather than having riders and horses travel along South Shore between their competition locations.
The condition of the showgrounds was no secret to many of those who attended the planning board meetings, but several said it was a matter that shouldn’t be tied to the right to build luxury housing.
Christy Lund, a member of the Equestrian Preserve Committee, said Bellissimo and Stone should invest in upgrades to the current showgrounds and rider experience.
“This is the key to success,” Lund said. “This luxury, private golf community with $2 million homes has no benefit to the horse show.”
Fewer homes planned for one community in The Wellington
To file applications for The Wellington, WLP partnered with the Nexus Luxury Collection, whose investors include singer Justin Timberlake and golfer Tiger Woods, and the Tavistock Group, owned by British Investor Joe Lewis.
For Wellington South, the number of homes was reduced to 148 from 197, including five farms of 5 acres each, said Douglas McMahon, a Tavistock director. The neighborhood of luxury villas would be next to the proposed horse show center and include a public horse trail.
“It will be a low-density, high-quality residential community that will be a ‘beachfront property’ next to the showgrounds,” said McMahon.
Wellington North would bring a mix of 244 single-family homes and condominiums to the current site of Equestrian Village. The developers would also renovate a golf course at Palm Beach Polo Golf & Country Club and make it part of The Wellington’s amenities.
Paige Bellissimo, Mark Bellissimo’s daughter and a leader of WLP, said the target market is equestrians who want to live near the showgrounds but do not want to maintain a farm.
‘Equestrian golf club community’ pays for showgrounds, developer says
Members of the village’s planning and zoning board pressed WLP representatives for answers on how the luxury communities would support the new showgrounds.
“I think most people here agree that the horse show needs improvements,” board member Ron Herman. “Why does it have to be tied to building the houses and condos?”
McMahon said securing the approvals to build the residences is necessary to justify making a $250 million investment for the new showgrounds. He predicted the neighborhoods would bring more equestrian families to live in the area year-round to support the facility.
“We are trying to create a mechanism where we can be an enabler and a partner with Wellington International and GEG to help them double the size of the showgrounds,” McMahon said. GEG stands for Global Equestrian Group, which owns Wellington International.
“In turn, we are asking for land use changes on the other lands that we still own to make that an equestrian golf club community.”
Board member Adam Ramsey said if the residences were approved, the existing Equestrian Village would have to close and “there was no guarantee that the showgrounds would be built. And if they were built, that they’d be maintained at the standards expected and that it would operate indefinitely.”
The village staff said it was drafting a condition of approval that would require WLP first to build the new showgrounds before getting any building permits for the homes.
Paige Bellissimo and McMahon said they would be in favor of such a condition to show WLP’s commitment to building the new horse center.
“We don’t want to leave dressage or the derby field high and dry,” said Paige Beliissimo.
Would The Wellington be the start of urban sprawl?
The Jacobs family owns Deeridge Farm, which would stand next to The Wellington North. Jamie Gavigan, its attorney, said the Jacobs oppose the removal of any property from the equestrian preserve. WLG wants to remove 96 acres to allow for The Wellington’s development.
He says the condition of building the horse center first is just an empty promise at this point.
“We don’t have a chance to review it yet because there’s nothing to review. It’s still just the spirit and intent,” said Gavigan. “You don’t need to remove 96 acres from the EPA to build a new horse show”
Mark Kasowitz, an attorney representing Equestrian Club Estates residents, said the planning board should not consider WLP’s plans for the horse show because they are not officially part of the application.
“There has been a complete transformation in how this application is being presented,” Kasowitz said. “They are not here to build on the equestrian lifestyle. They are here to make money.”
Village resident Michale Whitlow, said he feared the proposed development would spark urban sprawl in the equestrian preserve.
“Once you start chipping away at the preserve, we’re going to have nothing but development forever and ever and ever,” Whitlow said.
Valentina Palm covers Royal Palm Beach, Wellington, Loxahatchee and other western communities in Palm Beach County for The Palm Beach Post. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @ValenPalmB. Support local journalism:Subscribe today.