Plans for high-end housing and recreational facilities on the site of the Equestrian Village dressage showgrounds, coupled with expanding the home of the Winter Equestrian Festival down the street, have coalesced into a hot issue for Wellington, Florida.
Two development proposals are involved. Wellington North includes not only Equestrian Village, but also a hunter/jumper derby field and a property known as White Birch. The other site is Wellington South, where the current cramped Wellington International showgrounds would grow to approximately double its current size, with new housing on adjacent property.
The controversy revolves around removing 96 acres from the Equestrian Preserve to allow the construction at Wellington North. The entire preserve is 9,000 acres that includes showgrounds, trails and polo fields in the Palm Beach County village. No land has been taken out of the Preserve since it was approved by voters in 2016. Removing the property has drawn fierce opposition and more than 8,000 signatures on a petition protesting any such action in the municipality billed as “The Winter Equestrian Capital of the World.”
On Nov. 16, the Village Council voted 4-1 in favor of removing the 96 acres from the Preserve so Wellington North could be developed, having been swayed by the prospect of more acreage and improved facilities for the Wellington International showgrounds at the Wellington South location. They also were unanimously in favor of rezoning from Residential to Equestrian Commercial Recreation for the showgrounds’ expansion acreage at Wellington South.
The Council will vote again early next year, possibly in January, to make the final decision on the Equestrian Preserve. The five Council members can change their votes at that time if they wish. Removing land from the Preserve requires “yes” votes from four of them.
Among the scores of people speaking out at the meetings against removing land from the preserve were such high-profile members of the community as Robin Parsky, who has owned top international show jumpers, and dressage Olympian Ashley Holzer. Holzer warned that Wellington could lose many of those in her discipline to shows at the glamorous World Equestrian Center (WEC) in Ocala if dressage facilities in the municipality are not suitable.
A number of dressage personalities expressed concern that on an expanded WEF showgrounds, their discipline would be mixed in with jumping horses, which could be disconcerting for their mounts.
“I don’t think another 80 acres is going to accommodate both sports,” said Kimberly Van Kampen, who has dressage horses and is part of Wellington Equestrian Partners (WEP), which owns Equestrian Village and previously the WEF showgrounds. Van Kampen moved to Ocala and bought a farm there when she got married in 2019.
The development is being proposed by Wellington Lifestyle Partners (WLP), a group that includes Mark Bellissimo, also of WEP. He holds licenses for all but one of the winter dressage shows at Equestrian Village.
There are those in Wellington who are wary of Bellissimo, citing issues concerning several projects which he has managed. He is keeping a low profile on the Wellington North and South front, though his daughter, Paige Bellismo-Nuñez, is WLP’s executive vice-president and has appeared at all the meetings.
In 2007, Mark Bellissimo bought what was then the struggling WEF showgrounds, christened it Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and built it into one of the world’s best-known show jumping facilities. His promotional efforts increased spectator attendance as it became an attraction for the community, which also benefited from its Great Charity Challenge initiative.
The showgrounds were sold in 2021 to the Global Equestrian Group (GEG), part of Waterland Private Equity, and renamed Wellington International. The CEO of GEG is international dressage entrepreneur Andreas Helgstrand, who earlier this fall reportedly completed the sale of his own farm in Wellington but is leasing it back.
His sales and training operation in Denmark was the subject of an undercover documentary that aired in November on Danish TV, portraying horses at the stable being roughly ridden and bearing the marks of spurs and whips. As a result, Helgstrand was barred by his federation from Danish team participation until at least January 2025, and the FEI has yet to say what action it might take regarding the matter. In the era of “social license to operate,” that situation raises a new question mark about how the town leaders might vote on the Preserve issue.
“I don’t know the full extent of what the fallout is going to be,” said Wellington vice-mayor Michael Napoleone, the lone vote against taking land from the Preserve. “There are a lot of unknowns about how this is going to impact Wellington and the broader horse show in general,” he added in a Nov. 30 interview.
Rumours of problems
In another twist, the Council last month asked Wellington International president Michael Stone whether GEG was for sale, citing rumours that it had financial problems and wasn’t maintaining the showgrounds.
“GEG has spent close to $12 million since they bought it. So, for people to say they’ve invested nothing in the property is nonsense,” said Stone.
While noting that selling a property on a five-year turnaround is common for an investment business, he added, “it hasn’t been for sale for two years, but if someone wants to come and buy GEG, I’m sure Waterland will sell it.”
In the interview, Napoleone said, “We all want Wellington to have a healthy and thriving horse show,” but there are questions about who will pay for it.
WLP owns both the Wellington North and South lands and had originally proposed selling the necessary expansion acreage on Wellington South to GEG, but only if WLP was successful in getting the Wellington North land removed from the Preserve so its development could proceed there. As it turns out, rising interest rates have stalled development across North America and GEG is not planning to purchase the land.
To secure the removal of the Wellington North land from the Preserve, WLP has proposed investing $25 million into Phase 1 of the expanded showgrounds at Wellington South. WLP would then lease the property to GEG so it could be operated as part of the showgrounds. As Napoleone noted, those in the know say expanding the showgrounds would wind up costing far more than $25 million.
Exactly what Phase 1 of the expansion would include has not been announced, and it’s not clear how Helgstrand’s circumstances and the publicity about it could affect the situation. GEG does, however, have a lease for Equestrian Village so it can stage 2024’s dressage shows.
But a spokesperson for WLP emphasized, “If the residential units in our application are not granted on the north parcel [Wellington North] it simply does not make economic sense to give up the residential development rights we have on Pod F [Wellington South] in addition to the incremental investment of approximately $25mm+ in new equestrian facilities that we are committing to build on Pod F.”
In the meantime, under what is dubbed “Condition Seven,” WLP has promised that until the expanded showgrounds are built, they will keep the dressage showgrounds at Wellington North operating.
WLP’s managing partner and spokesman Doug McMahon said, “It’s clear — a new showgrounds first, then we get to build houses.”
To sweeten the deal, he said WLP will give a 59-acre former golf course to the town as a park.
Many of those opposed to losing the 96 acres from the Preserve fear it will lead to a domino effect, with other Preserve parcels elsewhere in the village going for development.
But Napoleone noted that the next developer who wants to take land out of the Preserve won’t have the same kind of trade-off as WLP. If this happens the way it is proposed and the next person says, “I want to do it too,” Napoleone pointed out, “the question is `Are you building us a $50 million horse show? Are you going to build us a 60-acre park? What are we getting in exchange?’ “If you’re not doing those things, it’s not apples to apples.”
Much of WLP’s plans have changed since its initial application in order to make them more palatable to residents, who worry about increased traffic and overcrowding. In response, the number of housing units proposed in Wellington North have been cut by more than half, and two access points to the property have been closed to limit traffic.
The powerful Jacobs family, which has often opposed Bellissimo’s projects, surprised many when their attorney, Havey Oyer, said during the Nov. 14 Council session that his client is “cautiously neutral,” on plans for Wellington North, which is down the street from their Deeridge Farm.
Oyer said the Jacobs have “significant concerns that these applications threaten the character of Wellington’s equestrian community,” but added “it is clear that the applicant has not only heard our concerns, but also adjusted their applications to address many of the concerns.”
Private Property Transaction
Napoleone pointed out that the Wellington North development is a private property transaction,
“We’re considering a zoning issue and master plan amendment, which doesn’t necessarily tie to the financial health of the owner of the horse show property,” he said, referring to Helgstrand. “That’s not part of the application.”
In fact, if the land remains in the Preserve, Napoleone noted the owner is under no obligation to keep staging dressage shows. Even without rezoning, four housing units can be built on the site that includes Equestrian Village, and another two on White Birch. Other uses permitted without rezoning include recreational facilities, a riding school, veterinary clinic, restaurant, and a nail salon. People are not permitted to ride their horses on the property without the owner’s permission.
“If this was really about building a better horse show,” said Napoleone, “the application should have started with the horse show and not started with the houses. It’s backwards.”