WELLINGTON, Fla. — The feel of a heated courtroom took over the village council chambers tonight as an overflow crowd waited hours either to back or blast proposals that could pave the way for an equestrian competition center and commercial complex in Wellington's Equestrian Preserve.
They finally got their chance almost four hours into the meeting and just 30 minutes before it was scheduled to wrap for the night.
Until then, lawyers and experts for producers of the Winter Equestrian Festival who want to build an "Equestrian Village" and a short list of lawyers and experts representing landowners who object to it monopolized the council meeting, which ended at 11 p.m. and will continue at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Several hundred people - a few dozen of them wearing red shirts emblazoned with "NO! 'Equestrian' Village" - wedged themselves throughout the chambers and in the village hall's main lobby and a side meeting room.
Wellington Equestrian Preservation Alliance since December has fiercely fought the project with mailers, rallies and the red shirts. A truck with a massive advertising billboard saying the same wheeled its way outside the municipal complex before the meeting.
Equestrian Sports Partners sought three approvals, two of them final, that would help allow for potential construction of a spectator equestrian arena, show rings, a five-story hotel, 30,000 square feet of offices, 25,000 square feet of retail space and 30,000 square feet of restaurants on 59 acres at Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard.
Those final approvals, if granted, would not have allowed for the project to be completed. Instead they would clean up a master plan for the site, including adding entry roads, and allow for the spectator arena to be built - one part of the plan to which few have objected in recent months.
Only the master plan request was discussed this evening due to time limitations.
The third matter, which also wasn't discussed, dealt with comprehensive plan changes that would, foremost, set the framework for a 66-foot hotel on the site - the most controversial aspect of the plan. The council would have to vote on that item again, likely in April, but other related approvals would also have to be granted before the hotel could be built.
Still tonight's seemingly less controversial matters stirred debate. Opponents implied that approving those matters would pave the way for the whole project to be approved.
"You don't decide the access to the site before you know what it's going to serve," said Charles Siemon, a Boca Raton planner, speaking on behalf of some landowners. "You've got the cart before the horse."
And a new entrance proposed to the site could go in only if a nearby driveway to the Player's Club is removed - and the Player's Club hasn't agreed to that, Siemon and his group said.
Dan Rosenbaum, an attorney for the applicant, wanted all that input stricken from the record, but the council denied it.
Siemon's points resonated with Councilman Howard Coates.
"You're asking us to decide this based on what we don't know is going to be there," Coates said.
But Councilwoman Anne Gerwig begged to differ: "I don't see a cart before any horse. The first thing you have to do is have access to a property. I don't see this as anything we are being cornered on or backed into."
The master plan amendment would make official two access points already on the site at Pierson Road, and add a third, on South Shore Boulevard.
Making official the two entries, which have existed since the early 1970s, would be a "corrective action" to the master plan, said David Flinchum, Wellington's planning and zoning manager. But it's unclear why those two access points were never accounted for in the original master plan.
Also, the site already has a commercial designation but as a polo facility. Tonight's requested master plan change would make it commercial with an equestrian arena designation.
Most residents in the Isles of Wellington are in favor of the project, said Greg Cafaro, its association president.
"The traffic is our only main concern," Cafaro said.
Wellington staff and consultants have said the proposals meet traffic requirements, but experts opposing the project said the traffic studies were flawed.