I know I promised a couple of weeks ago that I would leave the drama of Welly World alone until something actually newsworthy (as opposed to gossipworthy) happened. I should have qualified that promise so that it didn’t conflict with my previous promise to bring you the complete interview I conducted last month with (mainly) Mark Bellissimo and (a little tiny bit) Michael Stone.  Even though the interview is a month old, like any soap opera worth its soap, nothing in the World of Welly has changed so much that this material is no longer relevant. Today’s post is not for everyone, which is why I wrote about FEI Eventing’s latest woes yesterday – so that no one feels cheated of a post this week.

Without further ado (blather), here it is:

Clearing the Air

An Exclusive Interview with Mark Bellissimo and Michael Stone

The home of the Global Dressage Festival, a facility considered by many to be the finest dressage show venue ever to be built in North America, has been plagued by controversy at every stage of its conception and creation over the past two years. Some residents of Wellington, Florida, particularly the family of billionaire Jeremy Jacobs, have objected to the building of the venue where the Global Dressage Festival now takes place, which is in a protected area called the Wellington Equestrian Preserve. Legal and political wrangling has created an environment of adversity that has become a drain on a community whose economy is largely dependent on the equestrian industry doing business there. With fresh law suits being filed on both sides in the past two months, there is no end in sight.

Equestrian Sport Productions’ CEO Mark Bellissimo and President Michael Stone took time out of their busy schedules running the Winter Equestrian Festival and Global Dressage Festival (WEF and GDF) to sit down for an in-depth interview  and to respond to the questions I believed were relevant to understanding their point of view.

In the press conference held on the first day of the CDI-W at the GDF, you said “politics will come and go and we will not be deterred”. From ESP’s point of view, what do you believe are the driving forces behind the opposition, particularly that of the Jacobs family, to the development of the property where the GDF takes place?

It is very hard to understand the motivation: sometimes you back yourself into a corner and then can’t get out, and maybe they just can’t get out and are opposing for opposing’s sake. We have withdrawn the controversial commercial elements that included the hotel and we believed that this would end the opposition – but sadly that has not been the case.

In that same press conference you made reference to becoming more pro-active in communicating to the community. Could you identify some misconceptions that have either been perpetuated by those opposed to the project or by assumption because ESP did not sufficiently convey its goals and actions to the public?

The most popular misconception is that we have no permits to build and develop the GDF facility. The venue is in the Equestrian Preserve area and barns and arenas both covered and uncovered are permitted, as are horse show facilities. We obtained all the necessary permits, everything is built to code and has passed all the building inspections.

Some people have questioned your motives in building the dressage venue. There was a gap of only a few weeks between ESP’s cancelling of the 2011 World Dressage Masters Palm Beach and the announcement that you were about to invest millions of dollars in building a dressage facility. Can you briefly describe your reasons for this apparent contradiction, as well as your long term commitment to dressage in Wellington, including the proposal you made to Wellington Classic Dressage in regard to a well-funded dressage circuit at existing venues?

We actually cancelled at the end of November 2010 because we had been promised top level riders and horses by the WDM management and they were not able to deliver them.  Several top Dressage riders contacted us and said that they really wanted a top level circuit in Florida and felt it could eventually be similar to the Jumper circuit. Robert Dover and Kim Van Kampen were the main drivers behind this effort.  At first we thought we could construct a circuit with the Jim Brandon center and White Fences with a large money final at PBIEC, but the other management teams were not interested in the strategy.  Having felt the enthusiasm of the Dressage community, we thought that a dressage venue would work and following several community meetings we launched the project in March 2011.   Despite the challenges we are glad we proceeded and we are confident that over time it will be the premiere dressage circuit in the world.

It has been pointed out in media reports that the location and physical appearance of structures on the illustration of the master plan are different to what was built. Could you explain whether or not an illustration on a master plan is in fact a commitment to build that exact structure in that exact place?  The residents of Polo Island have strongly objected to the proximity of the barns to their land. Why were they built in that location and not somewhere farther away from homes?

Firstly the “master plan” is actually a planning term that just indicates roadways and entrances to a piece of property. We illustrated a concept that had a hotel, a commercial retail area, and the equestrian facility. Originally, on a conceptual site plan, we had the covered arena where the barns are and vice versa, but following consultation and recommendation from village staff, who had contact with the homeowners onPoloIsland, we swapped the locations.  A number of residents complained but certainly not the majority; in fact, the President of one of the associations on Polo Island, Bob Bushey, has publicly supported the dressage facility.   Also, in terms of barn locations, the setback for barns against the property line in Wellington’s Equestrian Overlay Zoning District is 100 feet.   In our plan, the fourth barn would be 150 feet from the property line, 50% greater than the standard.   Currently the third tent would be close to 250 feet set back.

Regarding the reported violation of the South Florida Water Management District at the dressage venue: can you comment on the current status of this situation, as well as explain its nature? Michael told me that SFWMD is in fact on ESP’s side in this case. Is that true?

We believe our permit is appropriate and had been approved by SFWMD.   Charles and Kimberly Jacobs challenged the permit and sued both us and SFWMD as co-defendants.   We believe the suit is frivolous, as one of the core allegations is that our design will somehow flood their home on Polo Island.   The Trial was in Early January.   We are confident we will prevail.   We will share with you the results in the next month or so as the case is adjudicated.

The master plan was revoked because ESP failed to conduct platting of the dressage venue by the deadline that was set by Village Council. There is some question about whether the Village’s previous lawyer Jeff Kurtz gave verbal assurance that you would receive the extension necessary to deliver the plat at a later date. Is that accurate?

There is great mythology here.   We first submitted the Plat on Feb 28th, 2012, a month ahead of the deadline.   Jeff Kurtz had not officially reviewed the Property Owners Association (POA) documents, which were a simple ministerial requirement of the platting process, and there was a basic title issue that needed to get resolved.   The Council, who could have voted on the issue even without these simple omissions, given the political environment, chose to defer the February vote.   We cleaned up the title issues and the final plat documents with final POA docs that were delivered on March 5th, 2012 (ahead of the deadline).   The next scheduled meeting was on election day (March 13th), and then the recount debacle essentially made the late March meeting an impossibility for placement on the agenda and the vote.   Kurtz conveyed to our attorneys and our engineer that, given the contentious election and given that the plat was a simple ministerial issue, it would not be a problem.   Kurtz, as an agent to the village, assured our legal counsel that he would confirm the extension.  He did not deliver the confirmation of the extension.  Further, he did not officially “approve” the plat document until late April, a month after the deadline.  We then scheduled the next available meeting, which was in May.   Given that the “offending” commercial elements were removed and the Plat (which is a ministerial approval) was completed and actually in hand at the village meeting on the day the revocation was approved, it is hard to believe that they did not have an agenda to somehow reverse the approvals.   Despite some public posturing, it is clear is that the Jacobs want the equestrian elements torn down and removed.  This council is supportive of the Jacobs. Also, we have filed a complaint with the State and County ethics commissions on some alleged ethical improprieties by certain council members that occurred a day before the first revocation vote.   It is at the very least very disturbing in this day and age.

Please explain your motivation for voluntarily removing the hotel and retail element from your project. Do you foresee pursuing it again in the future, and if so, would it be at the same location?

We understood that with the change in council we had very little chance of being successful; we felt that it was better for the community to take what was a divisive issue off the table.   We currently have no commercial plans on the table and are reviewing our options internally.

Residents on Polo Island have been concerned that if the zoning is changed to allow commercial development at the dressage venue, which is in the Wellington Equestrian Preserve, it opens the door to commercial development on other undeveloped property in the Preserve, such as the polo fields on the east side of Polo Island. What would be your response to such concerns?

The property is already zoned Commercial Recreation and has existing entitlements.  Those entitlements do not include a hotel, but include many other commercial elements that we will provide to you.  We have no interest in the other polo fields and that owner is free to do what he wants within the existing entitlements.

I understand that part of the master plan was to relocate the entrance off Pierson Road to a spot some distance further east, the purpose being to make it possible to add a right turn lane to the intersection of Pierson and South Shore. I’ve also been told that this road modification would have been made at ESP’s expense. Have I understood correctly?

You are 100% correct.  We would have had to improve the junction at our expense and we were happy to do it.  Having the entrance on Pierson is better for traffic and a safer route for horse access and transportation.

Was it the revocation of the Master Plan by the current village council that has resulted in the closure of that entrance  on Pierson Road and the halting of any plans to move it and improve the safety of the intersection at Pierson and South Shore?

This is also correct and it is worth noting that the Master plan confers no rights to build anything, it just confirms the actual location of entrances, and it also changes the designation from Polo and Tennis to Equestrian and Dressage.  This entrance has been in use for  more than 30 years.

Please explain your plans to relocate the main WEF entrance to Lake Worth Road. Would ESP bear the cost of the road improvements or would that be the responsibility of the Village? What barriers are there to making this change, which would dramatically reduce traffic at Pierson and South Shore, an intersection widely agreed to be a dangerous one?

We own the land from the Junction of South Shore Blvd and Lake Worth Rd. all the way to the show grounds.   It makes an obvious entrance, which would significantly reduce traffic on Pierson and give a much needed second entrance to the show grounds.   Unfortunately, it has been opposed by Victoria McCullough (an influential supporter of the Margolis, Greene, and Willhite slate) as the road would pass by her estate (the road would be about 300 feet from her home and would not be visible).  She appealed our approval by suing the Village’s Decision on the Master Plan and the courts quickly rejected her appeal, supporting our approval.   The new access would be of great benefit to the facility, the industry, and for both equestrian and non equestrian members of the community that use both of these roads (it would also take traffic off of South Shore). Unfortunately, certain members of this council are more interested in protecting friends and political allies than in doing what’s in the best interests of the community at large.

Recently, red stickers went up on structures at both show venues, presumably because of incomplete permitting processes or incomplete approval of the construction. In the media, Mark, you have been accused of hundreds of permit violations over the years.  Can you explain the reality of the situation, particularly in regard to the failure of the Village to provide you with an up-to-date code, for which you filed a law suit in late 2012?

This is a complicated issue.  We do not pull permits, our contractors do.   It is their responsibility working in concert with the designed plans.  I believe over a thousand permits are pulled every year through a large number of different contractors.   When they get inspections, if there is something that needs to be corrected, which happens all the time, it is written up and then corrected by the contractor. These “write ups” or corrections have been portrayed as violations by certain people with a political agenda.  If you ask any contractors in the country they will tell you that this is common practice.   As we have studied this issue, I believe there have been a very small number of permit issues where the contractor applied for a permit but it was incomplete, and then started the work while they were completing some of the requirements that get them the “official” permit (i.e. it is a two-step process).  We have told our contractors that this is unacceptable and not to proceed with the work without permitting. The Village now allows us to go online to check the status in real time so we can monitor our contractors.   Now that we can check online, we have made it clear to all of our contractors that we are confirming all permits and that no work should be done before the official permit is granted.  People have assumed that the abundance of “violations” this year is related to a new more “stringent” council and staff.  First of all, the Village staff are very competent and are caught in a political situation.  What many people do not realize is that for the first time since we have run the WEF, a practice that I believe was in place when Stadium Jumping ran the property, was discontinued.  It was called the Equestrian Response Team (ERT) meeting.   For years, starting every October, we would take meetings every other Tuesday with all of our contractors, our key management, and all of the major departments in the village (planning, engineering, code compliance, etc).  There were about 25 people in the meeting.  Everyone had the goal of taking a very complex process of setting up the largest equestrian festival in the world, which required thousands of interaction with permits, inspections, plan reviews, and site reviews. We coordinated all the activities in the spirit of cooperation and in the best interests of the equestrian industry, which generates over $100 million dollars of annual economic impact to the community.   This year, without explanation, we were told that they had discontinued the ERT meetings.   Eliminating the meetings created a massive coordination problem.   No one was prepared for the impact of this decision.   I can only assume it was politically motivated as they knew it would create problems in the setup process. Now that we know this is the agenda, we can plan better for circuit.

In their ‘Top 25 of 2012’ report, NARG has criticized the WEF for having ongoing construction during the circuit. How do you respond to this accusation?

We understand the complaint.   The only construction ongoing this year was the International Club and some limited landscaping that was done off hours at the front entrance.  If the village had not eliminated the ERT meetings I am confident all work would have been completed well ahead of time.   Another complicating factor is that we are now essentially a full time facility with shows each week from early November till the start of circuit in early January.  The shows are growing, which makes it harder to isolate the number of rings and creates a smaller construction “window” (usually Mondays and Tuesdays) prior to circuit.   The good news is that the facility is essentially functionally complete.  We are sensitive to the issue, and it will not happen again.

You withdrew your application to host WEG 2018 immediately before you were to make a presentation to Village Council about it. Why did you so suddenly decide to withdraw your application?

We were asked to go to Lausanne to sign a letter of intent and pay a bidding fee. It was clear that the controversy surrounding the change of government and the inability to get a letter of support from the Village in its most basic form meant that we had no chance of being successful in our bid. So, rather than waste our time and that of the FEI, we withdrew.

Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis has said he believes the solution to this controversy, which has dragged on for nearly two years and been a drain on resources on both sides, is through litigation. Do you agree? I know you can’t specifically comment on ongoing litigation, but what has been your purpose in filing the law suits you have filed?

We repeatedly offered a settlement that basically allowed us to have the dressage facility as it is, and we would defend the Village in any law suits filed by the Jacobs or anyone else in connection to the Dressage facility.   The hotel and commercial elements were off the table completely. Inexplicably, in lieu of eliminating all the lawsuits and the contentiousness within the community, and the potential of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and potentially millions of taxpayer’s dollars defending the lawsuit, Bob Margolis would not even live up to his commitment to take the offer to a shade session for internal review and then a public meeting.   As a leader, even if you were against it, the responsible thing to do would be to provide rationale to reject the offer in a public meeting.   Bob talks a great game about transparency on government. Unfortunately, he does not live up to those words.   Instead of reaching out to me or our attorney, he wrongfully asserts that I had changed the offer three times, which is absolutely not true (they got one written offer worked on by both attorneys), and then he had a new attorney send a message back that they were not interested in a settlement.   We have protected, and will continue to protect, our constitutional rights as property owners.   I believe that history will conclude that this will be one of the biggest wastes of taxpayer money in Wellington History, and it will be Bob Margolis’ legacy as mayor.   Bob had (and has) the opportunity to lead this community out of this mess.   In my opinion, he has chosen to spend taxpayer money to protect the interests of the few over the interests of the many.   At any time, he can direct the village attorney to reach out to our attorney and re-establish the settlement, put it in a public agenda for public review, and even if he does not support it, at least provide the voting public with a rationale for spending their money. That is true leadership and transparency.

There may come a day when this controversy is finally resolved, at least enough to allow the dressage venue to operate on an ongoing basis. If you were to look ahead five years, what would you like to see taking place there and at the WEF?

We would like to extend the circuit for both venues on each shoulder period and then be able to use the Van Kampen Arena for summer events and activities for the community. We really believe that we can create the world’s greatest circuits for Hunters, Jumpers and Dressage and in five years’ time the top riders in each discipline will have their winter base in Wellington.