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Developers asked to remove members from Wellington committee ahead of controversial vote

Records show attorneys argued Jane Cleveland, Carlos Arellano wouldn't give company 'fair hearing'
Posted at 12:06 AM, Feb 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-21 00:20:22-05

WELLINGTON, Fla. — Two members from the Village of Wellington's Equestrian Preserve Committee are no longer on the board after the applicant for a controversial development asked for their removal.

Records from the Village of Wellington show attorneys for Wellington Lifestyle Partners argued two members, Jane Cleveland and Carlos Arellano, wouldn't give the company "a fair hearing" over the proposal due to their conduct. The request doesn't discuss specifics, but Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said the two had public criticism of the project after being warned of their impartiality in an email obtained by WPTV.

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"First, I sent a memo to the EPC on December 6, 2023 (copy attached) advising them of the need to maintain their impartiality," Cohen wrote. "Despite that, a number of EPC members persisted in their public criticism of the project...if Ms. Cleveland and Mr. Arellano participate in that item over the objection of the applicant, it could give rise to a due process challenge."

Cohen also said Cleveland violated city code by representing interested parties, which allows her to testify to the Village Council for up to 15 minutes.

A 600-acre luxury development is being proposed in Wellington on the current equestrian showgrounds.
A 600-acre luxury development is being proposed in Wellington on the current equestrian showgrounds.

Wellington Lifestyle Partners, which is a company composed of various investors and groups, received approval to remove 96 acres of land from a 9,000-acre area called the Equestrian Preserve, which is land reserved for people to perform equestrian activities. It also plans to close the Equestrian Village and build houses with a private golf club, then build a new larger facility along with additional houses.

The company didn't respond to WPTV's repeated request for comment as of Tuesday night.

Cleveland, who has served as the committee chair since 2016, said purging her from the committee allows developers to implement their plans faster and before any new council members are elected on March 19. She said she put aside her concerns with the application and even helped village staff write out conditions to build homes.

"As it happens, I had put aside my views of the applications themselves and assisted the Village staff and applicants with the horse show-related language in those Conditions," Cleveland wrote. "That should have made my capacity for impartiality quite clear. Nevertheless, the applicant demanded that another member and I be removed and the Village complied."

Arellano said he believed developers asked him to get purged from the committee because they didn't like his opinions.

"They didn't like what I had to say, so they kicked me off," Arellano said on the phone. "....Even if they ask me to go back, I’m not going back."

Arellano also called the current people on the committee puppets, who approved the plans for a new showgrounds on Thursday. The project now heads to the Village Planning and Zoning Board and then the Village Council for the final approval likely on March 5.

Liz Núñez, who is a spokeswoman for Wellington, said the attorney's letter was advising Council Members John McGovern and Michael Drahos about their decisions. She said the village attorney wasn't making any definitive statements about the beliefs of the village.

"The village has taken no position on the matter and did not weigh in on whether the applicant would receive a fair hearing," Núñez said in an email to WPTV.

Emails, which WPTV obtained, show McGovern was convinced by the village attorney's perspective on the decision to remove Cleveland. He called it a hard decision and tried to look for alternative interpretations to keep Cleveland on the committee.

"That's why the decision that I am announcing herein is so hard, but seemingly this is a week of hard decisions,' McGovern wrote. "Over the last 24 hours, I have tried unsuccessfully to find an alternate interpretation to section 2–60(G) of our code. As such, based upon the advice of counsel, and in order to avoid exposing Wellington to legal liability (as discussed in the attachments below), effective immediately, I am naming a new member to serve as my representative on the EPC."

McGovern called Cleveland a "friend, advisor and long-timer supporter" while adding she served with distinction to the Equestrian Preserve Committee in a statement to WPTV. He also said he decided to remove her after the Wellington Village Attorney determined Cleveland broke city code.

McGovern also said he appointed Judith Sloan, whom he is confident will perform a "great job" on the Equestrian Preserve Committee.

Drahos, who appointed and removed Arellano, ignored WPTV's repeated requests for comment.