Wellington Government Official Responsible for Equestrian Master Plan Ordered by Mayor Not to Speak to Horse Group

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Palm Beach International Equestrian Center's Global Dressage Festival grounds. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Sept. 10–The mayor of Wellington, home of the world’s largest winter horse shows, Monday night ordered the official charged with preparing a master plan to regulate equestrian activities in the community not to honor a commitment to explain proposals to a meeting of several dozen horse people.

The decision shocked more than 60 people who showed up for the meeting organized by the Equestrian Forum of Wellington to hear a presentation by Michael O’Dell, the project manager for the Village of Wellington that is the home of the world famous Winter Equestrian Festival and the Global Dressage Festival inaugurated this year.

Alex Zilo, one of the forum organizers, broke the news that less than two hours before the scheduled start of the meeting the village official responsible for gathering views of the community in preparation of a new master plan had been ordered by Mayor Bob Margolis not to attend.

He described it as “a slap in the face” of horse people.

Michael O’Dell had accepted the invitation three weeks prior to the meeting to make a presentation and answer question as part of the process of gathering the views of residents impacted by the so-called master plan that defines the administation of an equestrian preserve in which most horse farms are located.

One report–it could not be immediately confirmed–was that the mayor was upset by a report calling for the impeachment of him and two others on the five-member council that governs the community of 55,000 people inhabiting an area that was reclaimed from Florida Everglades swamplands to become the premier winter destination in the world for dressage, jumping, hunters and polo.

Terri Kane, another forum organizer, said the group had no political agenda and had determined at its founding that it would not pursue or join political actions inclduing any prospective efforts to unseat any of the three council members who were elected last spring.

The mission of the forum, she said, was to insure all points of view were heard on new rules that would be written to define Wellington’s equestrian preserve that is the heart of the village whose population explodes during winter with an influx of thousands of equestrians from around the world for more than three  months of international level competitions. The group represents all equestrian disciplines.

The election of three of the five seats on the council governing the village  reversed years of support for horse shows with an annual economic impact of almost $200 million when a family opposed to development of the dressage facility contributed more than $500,ooo to three candidates who were elected giving them a majority.

In one of its first actions after the election, the new council closed down the Global Dressage Festival grounds that were built at a cost of several million dollars and in their first season of competition offered almost $300,000 (€235,000) in prize money.

The council’s decision reversed approvals made by the previous coucil. It had the effect of closing down the entire dressage grounds, including a covered arena large enough to accommodate full size competition and warm up rings.

The arena was considered critical in South Florida summers where temperatures are frequently above 100F (38C) degrees with humidity that is debilitating. It also deprived charities and non-profit organizations from taking advantage of 30 days of free use of the arena for competitions and fund-raising.

Olympians from several countries are among hundreds of dressage riders who have made Wellington their fulltime year round home and were thus deprived of what would be a major improvement in competition facilities.

Equestrian Sport Productions that organizes both WEF and GDF withdrew plans to build a condominium hotel and an equestrian-themed retail plaza on the dressage grounds in an effort to remove obstacles to dressage shows.

Coupled with an outcry over the council actions, the village approved dressage shows at the new facility for six months–from Nov. 1, 2012 through April 30, 2013, but keeping it closed for half the year.

The political uncertainty led to ESP to withdraw its application to the International Equestrian Federation to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

That same uncertainty has led to a growing number of retailers which depend on equestrians for a substantial portion of their business to express fears for their future.

One of the three council members elected last spring to four-year terms has been subject to ethics scrutiny because of his close personal relationship with an opponent of the dressage grounds.