A Palm Beach County, Fla., circuit court jury ruled in favor of Mark Bellissimo and the organizers behind the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in a dispute with the Jacobs family regarding the development of the property known as the Equestrian Village.
Charlie and Kimberly Jacobs and their company, Solar Sportsystems Inc., initially filed suited in early 2012 against a number of defendants headed up by Bellissimo, the CEO of Wellington Equestrian Partners. WEP owns and operates the dressage facility and the hunter/jumper complex a mile away at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
The Jacobses lodged a number of objections to the development of the Equestrian Village and proposals for future projects. Bellissimo had planned to develop the show grounds to include a 100-room hotel and 75 condos. The Jacobs family as plaintiffs were attempting to restore the dressage facility to polo fields on the grounds that Bellissimo and WEP’s dressage facility interfered with the “scheme of development” for the property. (A building scheme as a legal term is a system of mutual agreements within a certain defined area in which all the property owners enter into the same agreements, and any owner can sue any other owner should they perceive a breach.)
During a 10-day trial in early December, the Jacobses’ attorney argued that several of Bellissimo’s developments on the dressage showgrounds constituted a breach, but in the ruling released Dec. 11, the jury unanimously found in favor of Bellissimo and his companies on 21 different questions.
“The bottom line is after two full trial weeks the jury ultimately concluded that on all the issues of significance we won,” said Daniel Rosenbaum, an attorney for Bellissimo and WEP. “That means Equestrian Village stays, and it continues to operate.”
In order to build the hotel, Bellissimo would still need to meet zoning requirements and get land development approvals from the village of Wellington.
Charlie Jacobs responded to requests for comment through a communications manager, writing, “We are reviewing all options—including appellate options.”
The Jacobs family has a well-documented objection to Bellissimo’s plans for development in Wellington but have stated previously they are not trying to dismantle the dressage show facility entirely. But the Jacobses’ position, said Bellissimo, ignores the rich history of the grounds, which was previously known as the Polo Stadium for Palm Beach Polo.
“It was the birthplace of the Winter Equestrian Festival in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hosting hundreds of horses during each week of competition,” he said. “The property was also a community gathering place and was used for large events like 4th of July fireworks, sunrise services and car shows. Additionally, the Polo Club had a 180-unit hotel resort program which ran until shortly after developer Glenn Straub bought the Polo Club assets through a bankruptcy sale in 1993.”
He added that, in the early 2000s, the Jacobs family and Solar Sportsystems, through their involvement with Stadium Jumping Inc., were also responsible for changes in the Polo Club. They tore down barns and built a strip mall, now known as the Saddle Shops, on property that was part of the Property Owners Association. The jury found that if there was an unreasonable impairment to the scheme of development, it happened years earlier through these other changes, and not through the development of the Equestrian Village property.
The Jacobs family has also been in additional litigation with WEP since 2006. Until 2007, the Jacobses were major shareholders of a struggling Stadium Jumping, which operated what was then the six-week Winter Equestrian Festival. SJI’s lease of the showgrounds from Palm Beach Polo was in default, and SJI was selling real estate to subsidize losses. The Jacobs family took over operational control of WEF in 2007.
As part of a settlement of lawsuits with WEP, related to SJI’s breach of a 30-year agreement with WEP, in late 2007, WEP purchased the Winter Equestrian Festival assets and show licenses. In 2016, despite a non-compete tied to the 2007 Settlement, the Jacobs family, in collaboration with Stadium Jumping’s Michael Morrissey, began applying for competitive shows in Wellington which is contrary to the terms of the settlement. WEP has sued for breach of contract. As a defense, despite receiving significant financial payments for the WEF licenses and SJI assets in 2007, SJI and the Jacobs have countered with a Florida antitrust suit.
At trial, WEP argued that the real reason for the Jacobs family’s lawsuit was not to preserve polo fields but instead was to interfere with WEP’s business under the guise of preservation. Bellissimo, however, believes the industry needs to get with the times in order to survive.
“The equestrian world has been going through significant changes, and Wellington needs to adapt to the evolution of the market,” Bellissimo said.
Bellissimo’s properties have become mainstays of some of the biggest horse shows in the country—the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, the Rolex Central Park Horse Show in New York and the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina, which is set to host the FEI World Equestrian Games in the fall of 2018. With this verdict in his favor, it’s full steam ahead for Bellissimo.
“I look forward to working with the Wellington Village Council to implement a strategy that returns Wellington to a leadership position as one of the world’s premier equestrian lifestyle destinations,” Bellissimo said.
Note: The Bellissimo family owns The Chronicle of the Horse, and Mark acts as its publisher.