I was interviewed by our local real estate and legal newspaper, the Daily Business Review, for an article they were writing on the impact of some potential zoning changes might have on the local real estate market. I am sure that my real estate blogging and Localism presence helped me to be selected, thank you Active Rain!.. The original article was going to cover a more broad view of equestrian real estate in South Florida, but a hot topic changed the focus of the story at the last moment.
Here is the article for those of you who are interested.
Wellington’s equestrian future at stake ￼
May 18, 2007 By: John Pacenti
This is the place where Prince Charles played polo. Bruce Springsteen’s daughter rides competitively during the season, along with other glitterati. Millions of dollars are pumped into the economy by visitors who come just for the equestrian atmosphere and events in Wellington, the affluent West Palm Beach suburb known for its stables and polo grounds.
But the last year has brought challenges for this community of 57,000 as leaders wrestle with how to ensure the equestrian lifestyle.
An equine virus dampened the polo, jumping and dressage seasons. A Palm Beach Circuit Court fight is brewing over where the popular Winter Equestrian Festival will be held.
And a hot-button proposal to carve 7.8 acres out of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve for a 96-bed assisted living center, shops and offices is heading to the Village Council next month.
As development pressures nip at the hooves of the preserve, the decision may be a bellwether for the community’s equestrian heritage.
“Are we going to allow the preserve to be chipped away at, or do we want to leave the legacy — or the lack of a legacy — that we are not the equestrian capital of the world that we once had been?” Councilwoman Laurie Cohen asked.
There are few places like Wellington.
It has typical suburban ranch-style homes plus multimillion-dollar mansions and enclaves like the Aero Club with its own runway and hangars at homes in the neighborhood. Its winding roads are often paired with bike and jogging trails. The main golf course is about to get a makeover.
The equestrian preserve sets aside 12,175 acres protected by rules and restrictions on roads, density and non-agricultural uses. Protections cover three areas: the original region along Pearson Road, Little Ranches along the northeast village corridor near Southern Boulevard and Rustic Ranches, which was added in 2006 near Flying Cow Road.
Some real estate brokers say the village’s equestrian property is as pricey as any corner commercial lot coveted by the likes of Walgreens. But one Realtor said the Wellington market was close to going into a recession last fall if the equestrian festival left town as it briefly threatened to do.
Brad Scherer, president of Atlantic Western Insurance, said the market remains dynamic. In February, his company was part of a $6.25 million sale of the 36-acre Las Palmas polo farm.
“It’s an extremely strong market that has even some sellers catching their breath. There have been some spectacular sales,” he said.
Barbara Weltner, a Realtor with Browning Realty International in Wellington, had a different take. “I’ve been out here a long time, and it’s the worst I’ve seen in years,” she said.
But two home sales in the last week might indicate a market pick-me-up, she said.
Mary La Medica, another Browning Realtor, said nothing has been selling because horse people don’t want to invest in an unstable situation.
“People are saying, ‘Wait. I’m going to see what these people are going to do before I’m going to invest any more money,’ ” she said. “There are power struggles between certain factions. Somebody wants to be the boss.”
La Medica, who helped bring professional events to Wellington’s Binks Golf Course in its heyday, said the power play panicked the real estate market and caused problems for those who board their horses. Already, horses are being boarded across South Florida and into Martin County because Wellington is too expensive, she said.
The tug-of-war is partly between Stadium Jumping Inc., producer of the Winter Equestrian Festival, and equestrian Mark Bellisimo, who moved to Wellington with his family solely for the equestrian life. Bellisimo insists he has a contract with Stadium Jumping that prevents it from moving.
In November, the festival producer sent gasps through Wellington’s equestrian community when it said it may be heading elsewhere.
The company announced May 3 the festival would move to a new $100 million facility in Wellington in 2010. Bellisimo has pending lawsuits on the matter.
Janie Coffey with Papillion Real Estate in Coral Gables, who markets South Florida equestrian property, said the in-town relocation announcement was the best thing that could have happened to Wellington.
“People weren’t buying. They didn’t want to buy property in Wellington if the big horse shows weren’t going to be there. Also the sellers didn’t know what to do. Everybody was very anxious,” Coffey said.
A more distant move would have been devastating, she said.
“Everybody knew there was a question in the air,” Coffey said. “They didn’t know if they were going to be stuck with these multimillion-dollar white elephants.”
Councilwoman Cohen cautions there are environmental issues, and the company has yet to close the deal on the land.
“It’s difficult to know if it’s even feasible,” said Cohen, an attorney at Seigfried Rivera Lerner De La Torre and Soble in West Palm Beach. “I wouldn’t say any issues are settled.”
One of her concerns is the upcoming vote on the retail proposal. Up for a vote is whether to change the zoning on a small piece of the equestrian preserve from commercial recreation to mixed use.
The change would allow construction of the Hospitality Shoppes on the abandoned polo grounds on northeast of Pearson and South Shore Boulevard.
The Wellington Equestrian Preserve Committee, an advisory group to the Village Council, has decided three times against removing the property from 8,167-acre preserve.
The project goes before the planning and zoning board June 7 and the council June 26. The request is for a 65,000-square-foot assisted living center, 20,000 square feet of retail space and 15,000 square feet of offices.
Committee chairman Michael Whitlow said allowing the project on the former polo grounds would set a precedent.
“I believe there are bunch of attorneys out there just waiting for us to do just that,” he said.
He noted the latest study in 1997 estimated the equestrian season has a $125 million economic impact.
Whitlow said he prefers two alternate sites for the assisted living facility near Wellington Regional Medical Center.
Attorney Alfred Malefatto of Greenberg Traurig in West Palm Beach, who represents Hospitality Shoppes, said an ALF is badly needed in Wellington, noted other commercial properties are near the proposed site, and said the project is an attempt at redevelopment.
“This isn’t an open space. This is a weed-strewn parking lot,” he said. “Is it sentimentality or overprotectiveness? But I go back to the fact we have a growing senior community. In Wellington, the needs of the senior community are not being met.”
Malefatto said he is optimistic the council will take a broader view and approve the project proposed by developers Scott Swerdlin, Eileen Sudler and Jack Matthews. Another partner, George Banks, withdrew as an investor because he was dating Councilwoman Lizbeth Benaquisto.
At least four of five votes are needed to send an application to the state for the land-use change.
Benaquisto, who plans to vote, said she favors the project and doesn’t think it would take away from the equestrian lifestyle or set a precedent.
“The reality is we have taken many measures to preserve the equestrian community and enhance it. I think everyone will acknowledge that,” she said.
Janie Coffey photo by A.M. Holt
Janie Coffey, Broker, GRI, TRC