Wellington pushes ahead on proposal to rezone equestrian preserve

The Wellington Village Council voted 4-1 to move forward with a proposal to rezone nearly 100 acres of the village’s equestrian preserve to build residential development after three days of late-night meetings, clocking in more than 15 hours of discussion.

The council chambers were packed during the marathon meetings, the room dotted with bright red as those opposed to the project donned matching T-shirts that read “VOTE NO” to express dissent for the plan.

Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the applicant behind the proposal, includes executive vice president and partner Paige Bellissimo-Nunez, the daughter of Mark Bellissimo, who is behind some of the most prominent equestrian venues in the country, and Douglas McMahon, the CEO and managing partner.

On day one, McMahon presented the plan to the council, which features a variety of projects, including rezoning nearly 100 acres inside the Wellington equestrian preserve to build 48 custom home lots and up to 48 townhomes, improving the village’s current equestrian showgrounds by building a new Derby field and Dressage facilities and constructing a Main Street with a luxury boutique hotel, six restaurants and about 24 shops along with office space and a town park.

This “represents a new chapter for Wellington that we get to write together,” McMahon said.

The high turnout of opponents is largely in response to the request to rezone a portion of the 9,000-acre equestrian preserve, which no developer has ever attempted before. Residents, groups and even campaigns, such as Horses Not Houses, worry the change will usher in a dangerous precedent for other developers as well as erode Wellington’s reputation of being the “winter equestrian capital of the world.”

But McMahon and supporters of the plan believe the opposite because an aspect of the plan would be to improve the village’s current showgrounds, so they argue the plan helps Wellington’s equine identity.

McMahon also acknowledged that when the proposal initially went before the council, he and the rest of Wellington Lifestyle Partners were “too big,” “too bold” and “too grand,” which may have shaped some of the negative perceptions of the proposal. WLP scaled back on the number of requested residential units from at least 250 to 96 and has since thrown in the offer of 59 acres of green space to become a public park.

Though the council members voted 4-1 in favor of the proposal in what’s known as a transmittal vote, at least three members expressed desire for more information before a final approval. The proposal will now go to the state for recommendation before going back to the village council early next year for a second reading and final approval, where it could ultimately be shot down.

“We have time to continue discussions, make further adjustments and continue the conversations that we’re having,” Councilwoman Tanya Siskind said. “I don’t see any harm in passing this.”

Siskind said she was especially persuaded to move forward with the proposal at this point because she does not want Wellington to squander the opportunity to improve the current showgrounds, which Wellington Lifestyle Partners is proposing to do.

Neither does Councilman Michael Drahos, who said while he understands the potential ramifications of taking land out of the equestrian preserve, he believes the future success of the equestrian sport in the village may rely on the improvement that would come packaged in with the deal.

“It’s an equestrian venue that is so tightly constricted, it can barely breathe,” he said.

Siskind’s sentiments about initially approving the plan were echoed by Councilman John T. McGovern, who likened the process to a football game.

“We are at a turning point,” he said. “This is somewhere between the end of the third quarter and a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter.”

If the plan is not “bulletproof” during the second and final reading, though, McGovern said he will vote against it.

Still, people left Thursday upset with the decision.

Len Feiwus, a lawyer with Kasowitz Benson Torres, who serves as council for the Equestrian Club Estates, an entity against the proposal, argued during the meeting the proposal is incompatible with Wellington’s mandate to protect the preserve.

“The Village Council’s vote was an astonishing betrayal of their duty to Wellington’s equestrian community,” Feiwus said in a statement after the meeting. “Four out of five council members defied thousands of their constituents to greenlight a disastrous plan that will destroy the Equestrian Preserve. … We are not done. We will continue to fight Bellissimo’s development plan at every stage.”