A controversial plan to permit construction of a golf club community on the site of Wellington, Florida’s Global Dressage Festival was approved this week by the Village Council, paving the way for an expanded showgrounds nearby to be the upgraded home of the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF).
After nearly seven hours of discussion on Wednesday, the council voted 4-1 for the first time to take 96-plus acres out of the Equestrian Preserve, a designation meant to bar high-density housing. The decision ended eight months of hearings and often-heated dialogue. It enables Wellington Lifestyle Partners (WLP) to build a combination of 96 high-end single-family homes and townhouses. Recreational facilities also are slated for the Equestrian Village dressage site, as well as a golf clubhouse and driving range on the neighboring White Birch polo fields at the Wellington North development.
Work on the housing cannot begin, however, until WLP finishes building the WEF showgrounds on land that it owns on the Wellington South parcel, which borders the current cramped showgrounds. The deadline for completion is December 2028, with the condition that dressage can continue to operate out of Global until then. Discussion of the terms for dressage continuing there in 2025 already is under way. Dressage would move to the WEF showgrounds after that project is finished.
The situation characterized as “complex” by several Council members was further complicated by WEF showgrounds owner Global Equestrian Group (GEG) putting the property up for sale, two years after it bought the site. GEG, part of Waterland Private Equity, is facing financial issues. The purchase process will start Feb. 13, when the agency handling the sale requires potential bidders to sign up. Reports are that several groups, including wealthy Wellington farm owners, will be vying for the venue.
While many of those involved with dressage at Global fought to keep their show permanently on the Wellington North property, such prominent figures in show jumping as Olympic and world championships medalist Rodrigo Pessoa stressed the importance of updating the “tired” WEF facility, even in the face of violating the Preserve restrictions.
“Wellington is now on the map for equestrian sports. But we need to keep it improving and up to date, because only three hours north of here, they have done something quite spectacular,” he noted, referring to the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, where estimates are that close to $1 billion has been spent on a vast showgrounds and hotels.
“We want to continue and support Wellington. We love coming here, but we want to come to a better facility,” he emphasized.
“This is a no-look-back moment for Wellington,” said Councilman Michael Drahos, before voting for removing the 96 acres from the Wellington North section of the Preserve, which includes a total of 9,000 acres across the municipality.
“What I really hope for us as a community is that this is the moment we become unified. We will never be the equestrian capital of the world unless the entire community buys into that,” Drahos commented.
But the community is divided, with more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to stop the development on the Preserve.
All the property involved in Wellington North and South was collected by Mark Bellisimo, who bought WEF in 2007 when it was failing, and revitalized it. He also built Equestrian Village; prior to its construction in 2012, dressage was in tight quarters on the WEF showgrounds.
Bellissimo is a controversial figure in town. Many are wary of him and there were comments during eight months of hearings on Wellington North and South about his unfulfilled promises on several projects.
Doug McMahon, the CEO of WLP, which includes developer NEXUS, said Bellissimo is not involved in running the organization and has no interest in taking a larger role. That comment was meant to reassure those who still had misgivings about anything with which Bellissimo is involved. Other plans include a town center with a hotel, which is outside the Preserve.
Lauren Brody, an equestrian realtor who is the administrator of the Keep Wellington Green Facebook page that opposed the Wellington North development, said, “This was a very long game Mark Bellissimo played. Call him anything you want, but the man was shrewd and he sat back and put all his chess pieces into play. This passed because he did that.”
In a last-minute bid to stop development of the Global Dressage site, a group of prominent equestrians committed to raising $25 million to buy the venue, two days before the final Council vote. But WLP wasn’t interested in selling.
Tuny Page, a dressage rider and farm owner who led the effort to buy Equestrian Village, said the initiative was such a late starter because of the “tremendous amount of trust” that the development would not go through. She cited votes against the project by the Village’s Equestrian Preserve Committee and the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment board, but they are simply advisory groups. The council’s vote is the only one that counts.
The decision to build in the Preserve means “Wellington is going to change significantly,” Page said, noting those who buy houses in the golf development likely won’t be equestrians.
Brody suggested that Equestrian Village, with its new zoning, “is now worth $1 billion. There’s no buying it. The council handed Mark Bellissimo hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in value. All they got in return was a ring here and a ring there and a green space [vacant land that WLP is giving to the Village for a park] that’s already green.”