Approval of Global Dressage Festival Year-Round Use Delayed Again by Confused Local Government

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Palm Bach International Equestrian Center's Global Dressage Festival grounds and gass jumper derby field. © 2013 Ken Brsddick/dressage-news.com
Palm Beach International Equestrian Center’s Global Dressage Festival grounds and grass jumper derby field. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

 

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

WELLINGTON, Florida, Oct. 24–Two nights of meetings to decide on permanent year-round use of the Global Dressage Festival grounds ended Thursday night with no decision when the elected politicians made so many changes to an agreement negotiated over several months they admtted they couldn’t work out what they had done.

The five-member council made numerous alterations to a detailed plan that they had ordered the Village of Wellington professional staff of engineers and other experts to negotiate with the organizers of the Global Dressage Festival that they had to vote on “clarifications” to actions they took just minutes earlier.

Most bizarre during five hours of debate Thursday night after more than three hours Tuesday was a move by council members to reject a recommendation by the city engineers to widen a two-lane road to provide safe access for horse trailers separate from a single spectator entrance.

The  GDF organizers offered to pay the full cost of the turn lane as well as alterations to an adjacent canal critical in South Florida’s summer torrential downpours.

The council–three of whom were elected with at least $500,000 in donations from a single family whose estate is near the GDF grounds and opposes the facility–decided to put off a vote until they could review a printed version of the “changes, strikeouts, alterations” so they could determine what they had actually done.

But that decision did not come until Mark Bellissimo, chief executive of Wellington Equestrian Partners that owns both the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and the organizing company for GDF and the Winter Equestrian Festival of jumper and hunter competitions, threatened to withdraw from the entire process. He had put on hold several lawsuits against Wellington over previous decisions while negotiating the agreement. He did not raise the issue of lawsuits but the city attorney did so in advising the council members of the possible effect of their actions.

“This is terrible for this community,” Mark Bellissimo told the council. “This is being done to appease a small minority. It ignores the staff. The plan with all the changes is incomprehensible. We will just withdraw. Thousnds of man hours by the city staff and our own staff have gone into negotiating this agreement.”

Village of Wellington council meeting Thursday night. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Village of Wellington council meeting Thursday night. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The dispute over the GDF grounds has no direct impact on the 2014 winter circuit at the multimillion dollar GDF show grounds scheduled to stage six international dressage events with almost $500,000 in total prize money over 12 weeks. GDF operates under a permit that allows use of the facilities for only six months a year and does not allow development of permanent facilities beyond what has already been built.

The date of a new hearing to consider the issue of year-round permanent use was not set though it is expected to be within the next two weeks.

However, the controversy in Wellington has become an issue around the world.

The Winter Equestrian Festival draws riders from more than 30 countries and dressage was expected to have the same impact internationally. The continuing saga and uncertainty has led to some top riders in the world to put off commitments to GDF for the third year in a row.

Further, an application by Equestrian Sport Productions to host the World  Equestrian Games of the seven international sports of dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining and vaulting plus para dressage in 2018 may have to be pigeonholed for a second time. Political uncertainty was cited in the first cancelation of a formal application and the same environment again throws into doubt the ability of ESP to meet requirements by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) to host an event that would bring more than 500,000 spectators and have an economic impact on Palm Beach County of well over $200 million.

Locally, though, year round use would enable free use by charities as well as a riding club and officially sanctioned competitions in a covered arena capable of accommodating at least three full size dressage arenas in South Florida’s steamy tropical summers.

A vote favorable to GDF would have meant that organizers could apply to build permanent structures such as additions to 200 stables constructed for the first dressage season in 2012 and a VIP pavilion. GDF operated for the first two years–2012 and 2013–with temporary permits and has already been awarded provisional permits for 2014.

The two equestrian festivals that combined make up the largest horse show in the world and longest running have been dovetailed over the same 12-week period in 2014, holding events on more than 30 competition and warmup arenas all with Olympic quality footing within the sprawling equestrian show complex.

The spark for the festering and expensive controversy that has embroiled Wellington was an ambitious plan by Wellington Equestrian Partners to construct a five-story condominium hotel and retail complex at the same time as the dressage facilities were being built on the GDF grounds.

The plan was approved by the Wellington government council three years ago.

Shortly thereafter two new members were elected to join a councilman opposed to the project and the new majority overturned the approvals. A series of lawsuits and charges of corruption followed.

The Wellington show organizers shelved plans for the hotel and the retail plaza but the dressage grounds were largely complete and they moved forward with the lawsuits. The cost to taxpayers of fighting the legal challenges forced the government into negotiating a settlement.

During the two nights of hearings, a procession of spectators that packed the 200-seat meeting hall, spoke in support of development of the 59-acre (24Ha) venue into the world’s leading dressage show venue. All but a handful of the 60 spectators who spoke out stressed their support for vehicle acess separate from the spectator entrance that is off a busy four-lane road.

Among them was six-time Olympian Robert Dover and Kimberly Boyer, who funded the covered arena in the name of her father, the late renowned U.S. financier Robert Van Kampen.

Janne Rumbough, a Danish immigrant and an amateur Grand Prix rider who lives on Palm Beach but has her horse farm in Wellington a few hundred yards/meters from the GDF grounds, drew loud support when she said she had organized the first dressage competition on the same grounds when they were the centerpiece polo fields in Wellington in 1979.

Even some residents in nearby homes who had opposed the show grounds over concerns about noise, bright lights and odors from stables when the six outdoor dressage arenas, 200 permanent stables and the covered arena were first built two years ago said it was time to end the divisiveness in the community of about 60,000 residents 17 miles (27km) inland from storied Palm Beach island.

However, an attorney for the Jacobs family that bankrolled the election campaign of three of the five council members to fight the dressage grounds voiced objections to the acess on the road that runs by the Jacobs estate. The meeting was told that the street has no sidewalks in front of the Jacobs property despite a requirement and that frequent speed bumps have been placed on the taxpayer-owned road, unlike other streets in Wellington that have no speed bumps.

The Jacobs lawyer insisted that every vehicle whether for spectators or horse and vendor trucks use the same access and not be allowed an access on the same street where the Jacobs farm is located.