The site for the upcoming Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Fla., has come under legal fire again. Charlie and Kim Jacobs have filed an amended complaint in Palm Beach County seeking to void the approval of two development orders for the property, stating that they are not in compliance with the Village of Wellington’s comprehensive plan.
With the latest developments, it looks as though the future of the venue will be decided in the Palm Beach County courts, rather than by the council of the Village of Wellington. The litigation marks an impasse in negotiations between the Jacobs family and Equestrian Sport Productions, the organizers of the GDF.
The 96-acre site, at the northeast corner of South Shore Boulevard and Pierson Road, had been the location of a polo stadium for many years. Mark Bellissimo , the CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, which runs the FTI Consulting Winter Equestrian Festival less than a mile down Pierson Rd., envisioned a world-class dressage facility there to rival the hunter/jumper facility at the WEF.
The ensuing battle  between Bellissimo, ESP and local citizens such as the Jacobs family, who own Deeridge Farm on Pierson Rd. and show at WEF, has divided Wellington and caused much contention.
Bellissimo initially planned an Equestrian Village development, to include showgrounds, a hotel, and retail businesses. But the plans for retail and hotel construction met vehement opposition from some Wellington residents, including members of the Wellington Equestrian Alliance. Those plans were tabled, and in February, the Wellington Village Council approved a special-use permit for the property, allowing the show to run at the facility in 2012, from Feb. 2 to April 15. The showgrounds included a permanent covered arena, four outdoor arenas and 200 permanent stalls.
In July, a Wellington Village Council that included newly elected members voted to revoke the special-use permit . An earlier vote by that council, in May, had revoked the master plan for the project.
An August vote by the council , however, suspended those revocations and granted permission for the 2012-2013 Adequan Global Dressage Festival to proceed on the showgrounds. In addition to dressage shows, that schedule includes the second round of the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby and three weeks of jumper classes.
The Jacobs family states that they are not against the construction of a dressage facility, but they are adamant that such a facility should meet the stipulations not only of the Village of Wellington’s building codes, but also the intent of the Village of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve, in which the property lies. They also believe that decisions about permitting construction should include public hearings.
“They opposed it because it sought intense commercial activity in Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve, which is a vitally important resource that is very important to the Jacobs family and the Village,” said Amy Huber, a lawyer with Shubin & Bass, the firm representing the Jacobses.
“They will continue to oppose it until the developer makes it compatible with the Preserve and the surrounding residential area and gives enforceable assurances to the public that it will not be improperly commercialized in the future,” Huber continued. “Along the way, the Jacobs family learned that the Village and other regulatory agencies did not review it properly, and they want to ensure that any development on that important property is reviewed appropriately and with significant public input.”
Legal Or Not?
Anne Gerwig, one of the five Village Council members, stated that Bellissimo “had permission to do everything he did. There was one thing he did without a permit, and it was corrected, which was constructing a deck. Other than that, I know of nothing that was built out there without a permit or with any kind of issue. Everything else was permitted, acceptable and allowed by law,” Gerwig said.
When asked if he was confident that construction at the GDF facility met all codes and was in compliance, Bellissimo replied “Absolutely.
“Our passion and our vision is to develop Wellington as the premiere equestrian lifestyle destination in the world,” Bellissimo continued. “We will not be deterred by bullying tactics, and our partnership is committed to our vision. Approximately six years ago the Jacobs family, using similar tactics, tried to move the [Winter Equestrian Festival], first out of Wellington, and then across town to a new venue. I believe it would have destroyed Wellington as we know it. Our partnership and the community came together, we aggressively fought the move, and we prevailed.
“As a result, the Winter Equestrian Festival has realized unprecedented growth, has become a major world venue, is attracting record exhibitors and spectators throughout the world, and is raising and distributing millions of dollars to charities and the local community. My only frustration is that the significant money spent in litigation could be better spent to grow equestrian sport and enhance the community,” said Bellissimo.
The Jacobs’ amended complaint states that the original special use permit for the facility stipulated that there be no permanent construction on the site, which was violated by the building of the covered arena. The complaint also claims that significant changes to the topography of the site will cause alterations in storm water retention and run-off.
“The Jacobs family amended its complaint to include and update it with additional significant violations that have been discovered through the legal process,” said Huber. “Of particular importance, and as a result of the Jacobs family’s diligence to protect the Preserve and this community, the developer has had to go back to the drawing board on multiple occasions recently to add additional land for storm water retention to prevent flooding and revise its Best Management Practices to ensure water quality. Even with these modifications, there are still additional violations on the property as constructed, which have recently been discussed by the Village Manager and continue to be in violation. The Amended Complaint seeks to bring this property into further compliance with the rules and regulations of the Village and SFWMD, and ensure that this developer follows the same rules applicable to all development within the Village.”
Within the complaint is the wording “To the extent that any improvements have been made or structures erected, the plaintiffs request that the court order the lands returned to their status prior to the commencement of the development activities challenged herein.”
A Frustrating Impasse
The Jacobs claim they aren’t seeking to prevent the 2013 Adequan Global Dressage Festival activities from happening and also to support the development of a dressage show circuit. “The Jacobs family would be happy to see a dressage facility operate on the property at a scale, intensity and design that is compatible with the surrounding area, sensitive to the neighborhood, complete with protections and assurances against noise, odors, environmental contamination, compliant with all of the Village Codes and Comprehensive Plan, and constructed and approved in accordance with Village’s normal development review and approval process,” said Huber.
Bellissimo is confident the 2013 GDF will go on. “While I suppose, legally, it could be possible to impact the event, it is highly improbable,” Bellissimo said. “I believe the lawsuit for the injunction was an ill-advised, mean-spirited attempt to create uncertainty within the Global Dressage Festival. The fact is clear they filed an injunction to tear down the venue and to void the agreement that allows the events for 2013. Ironically, the end result of their actions was that it galvanized the world equestrian community against the Jacobs’ misguided efforts.”
Gerwig noted that the fate of the site is in the hands of the courts now, not the Village Council. “There were several offers from both sides, but they couldn’t come to an agreement,” Gerwig said. “We’ve been through this process through April, and we’ve been to two mediations, and we haven’t been able to find a resolution that everyone would go along with.
“To me, the worst part is the division of the community. If you’re doing business in Wellington, it's like you have to be on one side or the other. It's a horrible feeling for a community to be divided this way. It does affect everyone.”
Gerwig also laments the expense that the ongoing litigation is costing the village. She notes that Wellington’s 2012 legal fees are more than a quarter of a million dollars higher than budgeted. “We have 58,000 residents, and a small percentage of our residents have anything to do with equestrian events,” Gerwig said. “It’s a real disservice to residents of Wellington who aren't involved in equestrian events. They're all paying the taxes that have to go to fund these legal fees.”
None of the legal wrangling involves the WEF site, and when asked if the Jacobs family would be welcome to show there, as they have for decades, Bellissimo replied, “They are absolutely welcome to compete.”