Wellington Government Offers Talks Over Global Dressage Festival Grounds

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Palm Beach International Equestrian Center's Stadium complex that hosts the Global Dressage Festival and Winter Equstrian Festival grass derby field events in the 2013 winter circuit. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Stadium complex that hosts the Global Dressage Festival and Winter Equstrian Festival grass derby field events. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

The Village of Wellington council that governs the community where the world famous Winter Equestrian Festival is based, on Tuesday night proposed talks to settle year-long opposition to the Global Dressage Festival grounds. But little was offered in exchange for a 180-day halt in legal proceedings that could stop mounting costs to taxpayers.

The proposal drawn up by the local government attorneys was authorized late at night by a vote of three of the five members of the council although there was no input from Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP), organizer of the Global Dressage Festival that is the richest dressage circuit in the Americas.

Mark Bellissimo, Managing Partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners that owns both the dressage and jumping festivals, was at the public meeting where the proposal was announced but had no immediate comment.

The offer was described by the village’s outside counsel, Claudio Riedi as “a path to settlement” of the dispute that began early in 2012 when the then-council voted to approve a development named Equestrian Village that included the Global Dressage Festival grounds, a condominium hotel and a retail plaza. The land had been Wellington’s central polo facility but was unused for competitions after hurricanes destroyed a concrete spectator grandstand.

Shortly after, a new council majority opposed to the development was elected with at least $500,000 in campaign funding from a family on a nearby equestrian estate that objected. Although the organizer spent millions of dollars completing the dressage facility with a covered arena, permanent stabling and a half-dozen competition and warm-up arenas the new council revoked occupation permits.

The council then blocked construction of any new stables or other buildings and restricted use of the grounds to six months of the winter circuit, but that has to be renewed each year from Nov. 1 to April 30.

Equestrian Sport Productions has filed a lawsuit to overturn the council’s decisions and assert its rights as a landowner.

Ahead of Tuesday night’s debate on the Equestrian Village, a report on the village finances showed the serious impact of legal costs defending against the lawsuits.

The essence of the offer approved by a three to two vote is to stay all legal activity for 180 days, ESP submit new applications for a variety of construction, landscaping and other permits; accept a single access to the show grounds and apply for a permit to use the show grounds this summer.

The proposal appeared to offer little to ESP as it essentially maintains the existing situation while requiring the organizers to submit to procedures that two of the three council members against the show grounds made clear Tuesday night will use to fight the facility.

The attorneys proposing the offer admitted that a real benefit for the village government was that no additional legal costs would be incurred during the 180-day stay. It also said there was no guarantee the Florida Circuit Court which had been assigned the case would go along with the delay.

“The season’s over,” Robert Margolis, the mayor and an opponent of the GDF but who voted in favor of the proposal said. “What we can we do now is open doors and let the dark cloud over the Village of Wellington out.”