You would think that folks who spend their days riding around inside a rectangular arena with sandy footing would have learned the first rule of playground etiquette – getting along in the sandbox. But they haven’t. And apparently neither have the people in Wellington who are in any way connected to dressage. Not that all the warriors in this particular battle royal are technically Dressage Queens. Several key players on each team have probably never considered pulling on a pair of full seat britches or letting their stirrups down to tippy-toe length. Some of them haven’t even been topside of a horse in recent memory, for that matter. But the fight of all fights this Welly World season is causing the dressage community not only to draw lines in the afore-mentioned sand; they are digging trenches.
I made my annual January visit to Welly World last month. Among other things, I had set myself a goal to try and gain an understanding of why there is such bad blood flowing over the Global Dressage Festival and, perhaps more to the point on the end of the stick, the accompanying commercial development known as Equestrian Village. During my two weeks in Welly I saw the construction site from different angles – from South Shore, from Pierson and from the luckless homes on the west side of Polo Island whose backyards have changed forever. But I was not as successful in getting a look the controversy from different angles. I came home only partially enlightened. It may have been the company I was keeping, but it did seem that most of the people who wanted to talk about the project were those who are opposed to it. Other than the boisterous blogging of a certain six-time Olympian who could be considered the greatest cheerleader any development project ever had, the people at ESP and their allies have been curiously quiet about their point of view – though if actions do speak louder than words, I mustn’t ignore the wee-hours and Sunday construction on the site as ample proof that one of their most closely held beliefs is that this particular show must go on.
The Welly Town Council meeting of January 31st was live streamed, and I did attempt to watch it – but after three hours of monotonous to-and-fro over ‘access points’ (a.k.a. street entrances) and the looming prospect of a 6 am flight the next morning, I gave up and went to bed. Good thing I did too, since the meeting ended inconclusively in the middle of the night and took two more sessions to get to naughty bits: the actual voting.
There are a number of subplots below the surface that have varying levels of relevance, but as an almost-complete outsider (I don’t have millions of dollars, own a hockey team or even call Welly home for more than a few weeks each year – and that’s as a house guest, not a home owner) I think it’s best for me to just stick with the incontrovertibles. Here are a few:
- very few, if any, people object to the idea that Welly needs to step up its dressage game in precisely the fashion that the GDF venue is already doing. Even though they had to cancel the first show due to a late start on construction, two successful competitions are now under the GDF’s belt. I know. I get the press releases. All of them. (note to other dressage show organizers in Welly: you might want to take a page from the new kids on the block and get a bit more with the publicity program, though you don’t have to go quite the whole one-a-day hog like GDF has).
- the ‘nay’ side’s arguments range from increased traffic to increased crime to a slippery slope that will result in all of Welly’s Equestrian Preserve going the way of the Dodo and becoming a featureless mass of urban sprawl. The nay’ers are a very proactive bunch, too – turning up at council meetings in t-shirts that say ‘no’ to the Equestrian Village, creating social media buzz, distributing flyers and putting up signs on the properties of like-minded residents.
- the ‘ay’ side has agreed to tone down a few items, such as the height of the condo-hotel that is right on the front lines of the battle, and reducing the number of barns (at least for now, with an option to review in a year). The approval process for the commercial development is not even close to over, and the nay’ers still have opportunities to get the project stopped in its tracks – though that probability is diminishing with every approval the project receives.
Having heard plenty about how the Equestrian Village will spell the ruin of Welly World’s equestrian heartland, I decided to take what I had heard from the nay’ers and ask for some answers from the ay’ers. I called ESP President Michael Stone, who very kindly gave me some of his valuable time to provide a few answers from the other side of the little white fence. I am not taking sides here, but I do think that if you are going to take sides, it behoves you to obtain a balanced view that includes both the ay’ers and the nay’ers.
One question I asked Michael was why construction of the dressage facility started so late in the day, effectively forcing the first show to be chopped from the calendar and causing ESP to barely pull off the second (which was a CDI, no less). Bylaws regarding the hours allowed for using heavy machinery and flood lights were repeatedly broken in order to get the venue up and running for the second show date, so the question did occur to me that they could have saved themselves that particularly friend-unmaking activity by simply starting earlier. Stone said the Wellington Equestrian Preservation Alliance did their best to stall the permitting process. “We had to go through more levels than usual,” he explained. “We wanted to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ because we didn’t want to end up in court.” Well, they’ve ended up in court anyway, but that battle is now focused on the commercial side.
Another argument fielded by the nay’ers was that a different site should have been chosen for the GDF and/or commercial development. I asked Michael if that was a realistic criticism and if ESP had viable options, such as the piece of commercially zoned land on the other side and down the street (toward the commercial part of Welly) that is currently for sale. “It’s the most useful piece of property we have,” he told me about their choice in sites. “It’s on the corner which is a gateway to the equestrian element of Wellington. It used to be the original polo grounds when polo started here in the seventies. WEF actually started there as well.” WEF’s derby field and steeplechase course are on that property so it’s been actively in use for competition for a long time.
Michael also pointed out that the arguments about traffic problems on that corner aren’t a legitimate reason to move the commercial part of the project away from the show venue. “If there was a problem with traffic – and we don’t believe there would be – moving the hotel 300 feet down the street would not solve the traffic problem.” Something Michael didn’t say but which I thought was that in fact if you put the accommodations and some restaurants all on the same property, you would actually have LESS traffic than if everyone had to drive from the hotel to the horse show. I would also like to bring up the Alliance’s repeated use of Walmart comparisons. A phrase that has been much bandied about is that the proposed commercial development is 290,000 square feet, which makes it larger than the world’s largest Walmart. While that is true, the statement omits the fact that 220,000 feet of that is the condo-hotel itself, and that by building upward the developers reduce the actual footprint on the ground. 70,000 feet of retail shops and restaurants is hardly equivalent to plopping a giant Walmart into Welly World.
Another question I had for Michael was about the large number of retail vacancies I’ve noticed around Welly over the past couple of years. If there is so much empty retail space in town, why over-saturate the place with more? He didn’t actually answer that question but he described the vision for the retail area, which will be equestrian themed and high end, to go with the high end nature of the condo-hotel. Which brings me to another question: what is it? A condo or a hotel? Michael explained to me that it’s impossible to have a five star rated hotel in a place with a season that lasts only from November to April, and that selling individual units and then having them put into a rental pool run by a hotel management company allows the facility to offer top notch accommodations in such a seasonal area. I’d probably need to get a degree in hotel management to understand that one, but I think the short message is that Welly has a shortage of high-end short-term accommodations close to the horse show grounds, and this condo-hotel development – if it gets built – will offer just that.
So how about that slippery slope? Does giving ESP approval to put a commercial development on land that was set aside as Equestrian Preserve open the door to a real-life Walmart on the corner of South Shore and 50th? Michael Stone says no. He points out that the piece of land in question is the only part of the Preserve north of Pierson Road. The vast bulk of the protected land is south of Pierson. Michael made quite a lot of sense to me when we chatted, but this one isn’t a valid argument. The slippery slope doesn’t stop for road crossings. I do get his other point that the approval for this project is an exception and not a new rule. But let’s be realistic here, people. Fifty years ago the whole area was a swamp. Development is an inevitability if you honestly look at it – not from a ‘nay’ or ‘ay’ point of view but based on historical realities.
I never asked Michael to comment on the complaints that no environmental impact studies have been conducted in relation to the project. Hm, let me see. Environmental impact on the canals that are polluted with enough mosquito-killing chemicals to kill a horse if it should be foolish enough to drink out of them? Or on the non-native tree species that are so much more attractive than the native mangroves? Or would it be the Burmese pythons that are tugging at your environmental heartstrings? I don’t know much but I do know this: Wellington is not a pristine environment – unless you are a horse or a horse lover. Not that it isn’t worth saving for the horses and the horse lovers of course. But flooding the battle field with weak or unsupportable claims is not the way to win.
Here is what I think about the whole shebang, now that I am at least slightly informed: the new dressage show facility is good for dressage sport in Welly, and therefore should also be seen as good in the eyes of those who care about the equestrian community. It isn’t good for a group of home owners who want to look out their windows at a polo field, not a parking lot or a barn. The commercial development could be good for Welly if it turns out exactly the way Michael Stone described it to me. There will be increased traffic and likely a need for some road work to make sure there aren’t more accidents near the hotly debated ‘access points’. And yes, there is a risk that giving permission to turn a piece of equestrian property in a preserve into condos and retail will speed up the development of other properties in the area, even within the Preserve. But the operative word there is ‘speed up’, not ‘happen’. It’s going to happen, if not this year, then in a year or ten.
I have some friends in Welly who will probably be mad at me when they read this post. But they are used to being mad at me from time to time. My no-sacred-cows attitude is applied in my personal life as well as on this blog. I’m willing to take a little flak from my pals if they disagree with what I wrote today – in fact I welcome comments from anyone, friend or foe, at the bottom of this post. One of the few things I retained from three years of drudgery majoring in philosophy was that in order to reach synthesis (solution, or progress if you like), you have to have a thesis and an antithesis. It is only through the honest, rational appraisal of opposing points of view that you can move forward on the best road forward. Well, that and a good lawyer.