Four marathon days of testimony and public comment finally came to an end near midnight Wednesday, Feb. 7, when the Wellington (Florida) Village Council voted to approve zoning changes that will allow the Wellington International show grounds to expand and developers to build luxury homes on the current site of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. (You can watch an archived version of the meeting livestream here.)
The question before the council was whether to take a 96-acre parcel of land out of the village’s Equestrian Preserve and rezone it for residential development, while also rezoning 114 acres just south of the existing Wellington International grounds from residential to commercial equestrian use. Wellington Lifestyle Partners, the group behind the proposal, owns both parcels of land through various subsidiaries. The change will allow Wellington International to expand and host AGDF, as well as the hunter/jumper classes that are currently held on the derby field at Equestrian Village, on one contiguous piece of property.
The five-member council voted unanimously in favor of the changes involving the parcel that will be used to expand the show grounds; one member, Wellington Vice Mayor Michael Napoleone, voted against the changes involving the Equestrian Village parcel that would remove land from the Equestrian Preserve. Four votes are required for approval.
The meetings, which totaled almost 22 hours of testimony over four days, featured scores of Wellington residents speaking for and against the proposal. Nearby residents had concerns about traffic and construction; those farther away worried that taking land out of the Equestrian Preserve will be the first step on a slippery slope that could change the entire horse-centric nature of the community, and that the proposed facilities on the expanded show grounds might never be built, or not built to be comparable to what currently exists at Equestrian Village.
Many of those who compete at the Winter Equestrian Festival spoke in favor of WLP’s plan, testifying that the current Wellington International grounds—which are for sale—need updating and aren’t on par with facilities like the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. Olympic show jumpers Rodrigo Pessoa and Nayel Nassar and Olympic dressage riders Ashley Holzer and Jacquie Brooks testified in favor of expanding the show grounds, as did Murray Kessler, former president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, show organizer Andrew Philbrick and trainer Michael Dignelli.
“Part of this process is that, as the village council, if these are the decisions that we are elected to make, we take into account all parts of the community,” said Mayor Anne Gerwig before the council members took their votes. “We are not able to focus in on a sliver; we have to look at this very holistically, and decide if this is good for this community or not. This one’s quite complex—I will tell you, that’s the most complex thing that I’ve seen in 14 years [on the council]. So it’s not a simple process. I understand that everyone is very passionate about it, but we are here to make a decision for the long-term good of the community. That includes the tax base, as basic as that might sound, but it’s important. That includes the horse show being able to operate into the future.
“I think that’s why we’ve gone to this length is because of the severity of the situation; it’s not a simple decision. So I have to say, I’m a little put off by people saying that we ‘didn’t listen’ because we didn’t do what they said. We have listened, we’ve been attentive, we have taken into account every comment that has been made, we have read every email,” she continued. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree with anyone in the room, for that matter. So I just want you to understand the deliberation that we are doing is meaningful. It is difficult. This [has] definitely been a laborious process for a reason.”
“I said [in a previous meeting] that I believe it’s the council’s job to save the equestrian industry from its own self-destruction,” said Councilman Michael Drahos. “That comment has been reiterated and repeated on social media, and perhaps the message I was trying to convey got lost in the emotion. We have the benefit sitting up here as your elected leaders to make decisions which we think are in the best interest of the entire community without being hindered by the emotion of that decision. And, you know, having sat here for the multiple days that I have, and listening to everybody—both in this chambers and outside and [reading] all the emails—there’s no question in my mind that some of the opposition of this project is motivated by the emotion of it.
“There was a comment made by one of the interested parties, which I really agree with,” Drahos continued. “He said, ‘This is a no-look-back moment for Wellington.’ One hundred percent agree. It’s now or never for the equestrian industry in Wellington. This is the moment that we have to make this vote, as difficult as it will be, in order to ensure your long-term survival. And it is made without the benefit of emotion; it’s made logic-based, after months and months and months and volumes of paper and meetings and negotiations back and forth, late into the hours. No one can say that this council has not done everything we possibly can to make the most educated decision for the long term survival of the community.”
Both Drahos and Gerwig are at the ends of their terms on the council, and their replacements will be elected in March. Councilman John McGovern, who has two years left on his current council term, spoke about the council’s long history with proposed developments and improvements to horse show grounds.
“I believe that this is, as the mayor said at the beginning of all of our comments, the toughest vote that I might ever cast anywhere, ever. And I think that that’s a good thing. I think that the things that are really big, the things that are really meaningful, the things that can change a community for the better forever should be hard,” he said. “I’d be lying to you, if I didn’t tell you that it scares me, the risk of getting this wrong. But it scares me even more to kick the can down the road and not make absolutely sure that we have taken a process that has worked and made it better, and then polished it further and then demanded more.
“I believe that the equestrian preserve for perpetuity will be east of South Shore [Boulevard] and south of Pierson [Road]; let it ring forth from here that Pierson is a hard line,” he continued. “And if we need to, if the wisdom of the [incoming] council is that we want to change and make it even harder to take land out in the future and switch it to a five-vote requirement to take land out, I’m fine with that too. But right now, today, for the future of our city, I cannot let the search for perfection be the enemy of good. And because of us, because of all of you, we have made this good.”
Napoleone was the sole vote against the proposed zoning changes that would remove the Equestrian Village parcel from the Equestrian Preserve and allow it to be developed.
“To me, the point of the [Equestrian Preserve] designation is to preserve the equestrian lifestyle and low-density or equestrian development. [It’s meant] for farms and equestrian activities. The project on the north doesn’t meet that criteria. It’s the opposite. It really has nothing to do with equestrians,” he said. “What we’re really doing is being asked to grant development rights that don’t exist; those rights will make that land exponentially more valuable. And when we grant those rights, WLP wants to build an expansive private residential resort club community, in the heart of Wellington, and to me and to many others I’ve spoken with, that’s not what Wellington is, and that’s not what we want Wellington to become. We’re not a vacation resort destination. Wellington is a family community based on great schools, great parks and recreation that coexist alongside a thriving equestrian community and top level riders living and competing here.”
In a late development, a group of local property owners sent a letter to the council on Feb. 5, two days before the meeting, saying that they were offering $25 million to purchase the 96-acre parcel currently in the Equestrian Preserve and intended to continue using it for horse shows.
Robin Parsky, who had spoken against the zoning changes and proposed development at a previous meeting, spoke at the Tuesday meeting about the offer. But the group, which also included Victoria McCullough, Scott Swerdlin, Beth Johnson, Terri Kane, Betsy Juliano, and Dave and Arlene “Tuny” Page, had not communicated with WLP. Doug McMahon, WLP’s CEO and managing partner, indicated the organization was not interested in selling.
[Editor’s note: Wellington International is owned by the Global Equestrian Group, which also owns The Chronicle of the Horse.]