In the tony village of Wellington, where couth is king, the battle over a proposed $80 million equestrian complex has devolved into a vitriolic smear campaign against the council members who dare oppose the project, those officials say.
“All it is is character assassination,” said Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis, elected in March to a four-year term on the five-member council. “That’s the way [developer Mark Bellisimo] operates. Now there’s a new sheriff in town, and we’re holding Mark’s feet to the fire.”
Margolis and Councilmen John Greene and Matt Willhite say they have been crowned public enemy No. 1 by Bellisimo, president of Equestrian Sport Productions. The company stages the Winter Equestrian Festival, a 12-week show-jumping competition that has won international acclaim and helped put Wellington on the map among the horsey set.
The battle, which Margolis, Greene and Willhite say is anything but personal for them, has spawned lawsuits, state and county ethics complaints, threats of violence, character assassination, and allegations of kickbacks, corruption and vote-selling, according to the councilmen.
Bellisimo fervently denies making any threats, saying he’s only filed lawsuits and ethics complaints to remedy what he says is his legal right to develop his land. Bellisimo contends that the Margolis, Willhite and Greene election campaigns were bankrolled with unprecedented amounts of money, financed predominantly by local billionaires with a vested interest: the Jacobs family, Neil Hirsch and “wealthy trust-funder” Victoria McCullough — all of whom have property abutting his.
“In the end, what I want is for them to do their jobs with integrity and respect for due process and in the best interests of the entire community, the voters and the taxpayers, not a small group of very loud and connected billionaires,” Bellisimo said of the councilmen. “Do what’s in the best interests of the many, not the few.”
Protecting ‘sacred land’
The councilmen say they are in Bellisimo’s crosshairs because they do not support his Equestrian Village project, a large-scale commercial development planned in the heart of the community’s equestrian preserve. The 9,000-acre preserve, established by the village as part of its comprehensive master plan, has polo fields, show-grounds and parks nestled among equine-focused businesses, bridle trails, ranches, stables and homes.
“Bob, Matt and I are very passionate about the platform to preserve and protect this sacred land,” said Greene, the Village Council’s newest member and, by all accounts, the main target of Bellisimo’s ire. “It’s open green space with large parcels of land. It’s what separates us from downtown Boca or Downtown at the Gardens. Massive commercial development would turn South Shore Boulevard into Glades Road.”
The Equestrian Village is more than plans on a drawing board. An arena, a temporary hospitality tent, a derby field, a two-story tiki-topped viewing deck and two permanent stables have already been built on the east side of the property. But construction stopped when the Village Council revoked master plan changes allowing commercial development in the equestrian preserve. Two concrete pads – the unfinished foundation of stables that have yet to receive permitting approvals – sit as testament to the development’s legal limbo.
The trio of councilmen – who Bellisimo dubbed “the Gang of Three” in a recent letter to the editor published in The Palm Beach Post – say the developer has spent years bullying anyone who got in the way of his plans, accusing Bellisimo of skirting the process required of any project before and during construction. In turn, Bellisimo blames Margolis, Greene and Willhite, who together make up a majority on the new Village Council, for the council’s decision to revoke permitted changes to the master plan, hog-tying his project. Bellisimo and his supporters have accused the councilmen of using their elected office to protect wealthy landowners and hurt Bellisimo’s business ventures.
The master plan changes were revoked, Bellisimo said, over technicalities that could have easily been remedied. Village Manager Paul Schofield disagreed, saying Bellisimo failed to meet deadlines for platting the property and making road improvements.
The Equestrian Village complex, located at the northeast corner of Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard, is – in Bellisimo’s mind – his tour de force, complete with plans for a Global Dressage Festival. The mixed-use development originally included a condo-hotel, restaurants and shops, as well as a stadium and arenas. Shortly after the November election, Bellisimo withdrew the commercial elements from consideration, saying he knew the Gang of Three opposed them. By taking that off the table, he said, he could focus on forging ahead with the equestrian components.
But the opposing factions remain at odds.
It’s Bellisimo’s modus operandi to attack those he views as his opponents, said Greene, who is the subject of state and county ethics complaints, as well as a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott from Bellisimo supporter Alex Domb, who also serves as president of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. The letter asks the governor to remove Margolis, Willhite and Greene from office.
The electorate decided
The Equestrian Village project dominated the 2012 election, and with close to $1 million spent by both sides, it made the contest the most contentious and expensive in Wellington history, according to Schofield.
In the end, Greene said, Wellington residents spoke with their votes, electing a council majority that campaigned against a large-scale commercial development in the village’s revered equestrian preserve. All three councilmen believe Bellisimo and some in his camp are more concerned about turning a profit than doing what’s best for Wellington.
“All Mark wants to do is develop and get the hell out of dodge,” Greene said.
Bellisimo disagreed, saying he loves Wellington and has done nothing more than create hundreds of jobs and infuse millions of dollars into the local economy.
Ironically perhaps, the developer and the new councilman began on promising footing.
Until mid-November, Greene said he and Bellisimo were cordial, even meeting socially to try to cultivate an “open dialogue.” Although the men may not have a shared vision for Wellington, Greene said he recognized the developer generates a great deal of revenue for the village and deserves a cooperative attitude from elected officials and village staff.
Greene said Bellisimo told him he felt picked on by code enforcement and other officials. Hoping to streamline the process and make sure both the village and Bellisimo shared accountability, Greene said he offered to speak to Schofield about assigning a village staffer as Bellisimo’s point person. Bellisimo, he said, seemed to like the idea.
“I applaud someone like Mark, investing tens of millions of dollars in a world-class venue,” Greene said. “We need people like him. But if it means not following the rules, putting the public safety at risk, I can’t support that.”
In November, when Greene informed Bellisimo he would not be voting in favor of a proposed settlement agreement on the master plan, Greene said the developer turned on him.
“He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘John, if you don’t support me, I’m telling you now, I’ll launch the most outrageous PR assault on you, the village, and it will cost the village millions in unnecessary
litigation and make your life a living nightmare,’“ Greene said. “The rage and fury in his eyes — he was sweating, he was anxious, his body language was intimidating. He was full of rage.”
‘Politically motivated’ attacks
Since then, Greene said he has been “bombarded with egregious public records requests,” one nine pages long asking for his every email and text message, even those exchanged before he took office. Then,
Greene said, a campaign was launched to destroy his reputation.
“It has been unwarranted harassment, libel, character defamation, false statements with a malicious undertone to affect my credibility, my character and my personal and financial well-being,” Greene said.
Not long after the election, according to Greene, “false and politically motivated” ethics complaints were filed with the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, alleging Greene abused his power and accepted improper gifts, among other violations. Greene said Bellisimo and his camp took issue with the councilman’s 30-year friendship with Hirsch, the billionaire owner of The Player’s Club whose estate abuts the Equestrian Village.
When Greene and his wife separated over the summer, Greene said Hirsch offered him temporary housing in his guest cottage at Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club. Greene said he checked with the Ethics Commission before moving in and was told he was not breaking any laws as long as he either paid Hirsch rent or Hirsch resigned from a village advisory board. Hirsch resigned. Bellisimo supporter Michael Nelson filed a complaint with the commission, accusing Greene of fraudulently obtaining an access decal to Palm Beach Polo and violating state gift laws.
Greene said in clearing him of any wrongdoing, Ethics Commission officials told him they recognized the allegations were politically motivated.
When told of Greene’s account of events, Bellisimo called him coy. Greene has only been cleared of an internal investigation, Bellisimo said, and a hearing set for April will decide the merits of the complaint.
Megan Rogers, the Ethics Commission’s interim executive director and staff counsel, told BizPac Review she is prohibited from confirming or denying any pending complaints. She did verify that two complaints against Greene – by Nelson and local restaurateur Juan Gando, who does business with Bellisimo’s Winter Equestrian Festival — have been resolved, with no probable cause found. Margolis settled a separate complaint over a $4,000 check from McCullough written to the mayor’s legal defense fund, Rogers said.
And so began a flurry of complaints, all filed against the same three men.
“Three elected officials get complaints every single week, and they are always tied to their votes or non-votes tied to the Equestrian Village,” Schofield said.
A never-ending battle
Bellisimo himself has filed three lawsuits against the village. Margolis has fielded a number of county and state ethics complaints, and Bellisimo said another is in the works against Willhite. The county complaints against Margolis and Greene have been amended to include more allegations of wrongdoing and material omissions allegedly made in the councilmen’s statements, Bellisimo said.
Before the election, another lawsuit, by billionaire and fervent Equestrian Village opponent Charles Jacobs, was filed against the village and Bellisimo’s companies. Jacobs, whose Polo Island home is in Palm Beach Polo and abuts the Equestrian Village, is seeking to halt the development by challenging its approval.
Multiple media reports say the Jacobs family, which owns the 280-acre Deeridge Farm down the road from the Equestrian Village site, pumped $500,000 into the 2012 race to elect candidates opposing the Equestrian Village and to fund direct mail pieces and other materials.
But the men elected to represent the village of Wellington, in an election they say was all about preserving equestrian land, call the “smear campaign” misguided, if not malicious.
Margolis and Greene said they have been falsely accused of selling their votes. Both contend they have been on the receiving end of veiled threats.
But, with both sides waging the war from different perspectives, one thing is clear: This battle doesn’t appear to be ending soon.
“We’re not fighting with him,” Willhite said. “He’s fighting us. He’s filed the lawsuits. We are defending our position and what we think is right.”
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