WEF Organizer Sues Wellngton Over Rejection of Dressage Development Project, Pulls Out of Settlement Talks
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Organizers of Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival are suing the Village of Wellington, claiming that three newly elected members of the village council voted to kill an $80 million commercial expansion and creation of the Global Dressage Festival grounds as political payback to a billionaire family who helped get them elected.
The mayor and another council member received payments in cash and kind of thousands of ollars from opponents of the project just days before the council voted to revoke prior approvals of the Equestrian Village that included a condominium hotel, a retail plaza and the dressage show grounds, according to the lawsuit filed in Circuit Court. Florida places strict limits on the amount of financial contributions and declarations required of lobbyists and those who pay them.
And in another salvo aimed at the local government, Wellington Equestrian Partners, the group that owns the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center at the heart of the dispute, declared Friday it is withdrawing from all settlement discussions with the Village of Wellington over ongoing litigation. The withdrawal could mean that Wellington taxpayers will have to foot the bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal bills to defend the council for its actions over the horse show grounds.
The partnership that has invested $200 million in Wellington including a complete makeover of the main jumper and hunter show grounds and the addition of dressage facilities at its Stadium complex said it believes the village is pursuing “anti business and unlawful tactics” to block expansion.
Documentation in the lawsuit of payments to Mayor Bob Margolis and in kind to council member John Greene by Neil Hirsch, owner of the Players Club restaurant and bar adjacent to the Stadium complex and an opponent of the development, is a major escalation of a battle of lawsuits and countersuits. Another opponent, Victoria McCullough, was also named as making a payment. Both Hirsch and McCullough were believed subject to lobbying rules.
The latest lawsuit was an amendment to a suit naming as defendants Charles and Kimberly Jacobs and Solar Sportsystems, Inc., an entity owned by the Jacobs family that opposes expansion of PBIEC.
Solar Sportsystems contributed about $500,000 to the election of Margolis, Greene and a third council member, Matt Wilhite, in March, 2012. They became the majority on the five-member council that governs the community of about 55,000 residents whose primary businsss is equestrian sport–primarily hunter/jumper, dressage and polo events, with the Winter Equestrian Festival the largest economic driver.
“Additional facts have recently been disclosed that relate to the bias, conflict of interest and ethical violations of two of the Council members that improperly voted to revoke the development orders that are the subject of this action,” the lawsuit said.
Wellington, it said, had public venues for the major equestrian sports of show jumping, hunters and polo but not for dressage that it described as “one of the cornerstone equestrian disciplines.”
“The goal of the Equestrian Village project is to provide such a venue, with first-class facilities to attract top competitors, participants and visitors from around the world,” the suit said. “The Equestrian Village project is also intended to provide a venue for local charitable organizations, a community-focused riding academy, and additional events for the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival that occurs annually in Wellington.”
The new village council majority of Margolis, Greene and Willhite, it said, “traded their votes in exchange for the unlimited funding and support of their candidacy by the Jacobs PAC (Political Action Committee or SuperPAC) and the support of the Alliance, a lobbyist organization headed by the Jacobs family and Neil Hirsch.
“Margolis and Greene also received generous and improper gifts from Neil Hirsch, which were intended to improperly influence their decisions on the eve of the Status Review hearings on the Equestrian Village resolutions (on May 22).
“Margolis’ acceptance of the Hirsch and McCullough gifts, which are gifts from a director and a principal of a lobbyist, are serious ethical violations that warrant his dismissal from office, and potential civil or criminal penalties.”
Disclosure forms filed by the mayor last year listed $6,500 in gifts from Hirsch and McCullough for a legal defense fund Margolis set up to preserve his election win last year. Greene also filed a disclosure form in December that included gifts that should have been reported for earlier 2012 quarters. Greene noted $6,128 in temporary housing and vacation from Hirsch for those earlier quarters.
Mayor Margolis said in a prepared statement: “My actions are always based on the best interest of Wellington residents and any suggestion to the contrary is patently false and without merit. It is unfortunate that people with significant interest in our village have resorted to casting aspersions in order to advance their own agenda, rather than acting for the public good of the town.”
Greene decsribed the lawsuit as “an egregious claim and a feeble attempt to discredit me and my reputation.”
“I am not going to be intimidated by these or any of the other bullying methods being used by desperate people with a personal agenda,” he said in a statement. “My commitment to the equestrian community and to the entire Village of Wellington will no longer be consumed by a single developer whose sole interest is in the commercialization of preserved and protected land.”
John Shubin, a Miami lawyer for the Jacobs family and Solar Sportsystems, was reported by the Palm Beach Post as saying that filing an ethics complaint with the state or county was more appropriate for a private company to deal with issues raised in the lawsuit.
“I don’t see how a circuit court has jurisdiction over ethics complaints,” he said. “I think it’s more for dramatic effect than anything else.”
Mark Bellissimo, the WEP managing partner, said the group had offered the counci, including Margolis, Greene and Wilhite that it described as “the Jacons Slate,” with “a very clear and simple path to resolve the issues amicably and inexpensively”–reverse the revocations and allow the equestrian projects that have been built to operate “and WEP will drop all current and forego any future lawsuits related to the revocation issues.”
The settlement, Bellissimo said, “would diffuse an increasingly costly and divisive situation that is growing worse within the Village. Second, it would insure the continued success of the equestrian community, which benefits all Wellington residents. Third, it would have significantly reduced legal expenses to the taxpayers of Wellington–all with little or no impact on the Jacobs’ rights to pursue their personal agenda and their litigation.
“Inexplicably, instead of making a decision, the Jacobs’ Slate repeatedly rejected WEP’s settlement overtures and chose to continue their stalling tactics which would have the effect of putting the Equestrian Village at risk of once again losing next year’s summer and fall seasons.”
As a result, he said, “WEP will not waste further time pursing a settlement while the Village is preoccupied with stalling the settlement process, postponing the inevitable and, in our view, protecting a few political supporters (Neil Hirsch, Victoria McCullough and certain members of the Jacobs family). This community should be asking the fundamental question: ‘Why would certain members of the Village Council refuse such a beneficial and simple offer that would end extensive Village expenditures on lawyers and Village staff time to support the litigation?.’
”WEP believes that the revocations of the lawfully approved development rights were illegal and are part of a concerted effort by the Jacobs’ Slate to take away WEP’s property rights as landowners, which WEP believes are core constitutional rights.
“Recently uncovered information leads WEP to believe that the circumstances, payments, and what appears to WEP to be inducements made days prior to key votes to certain Council members participating in the vote to revoke WEP’s property rights were inappropriate and unlawful.”