Controversy in Wellington: Developer plans changes at golf courses

A proposal to make changes at two Wellington developments is stirring controversy, with some residents saying they’re concerned that what now seems like a simple request could lead to bigger changes in the future.

The two communities — Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club and Polo West — owned by longtime Wellington developer Glenn Straub, have submitted a pair of applications that would change how each of the properties may be used and add more entrances and exits at each location.

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The requests follow months of legal wrangling between Straub and the village.

According to court documents, Palm Beach Polo Inc. was holding weekly soccer games without obtaining a special-use permit from Wellington, something village officials said was required for any activity other than golf. Straub’s attorneys argued the property’s current zoning as open-space recreation should include soccer or practice polo matches, which have been held at Palm Beach Polo over the past few years.

The pair of new applications now with Wellington’s planning and zoning department stem from an agreement between Straub and the village to dismiss the lawsuit. Both applications ask Wellington to expand how Straub can use the golf courses at Palm Beach Polo — one of which has been defunct for more than a decade — and the golf course at Polo West.

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“That doesn’t mean they could have events out there with vendors,” said Wellington Planning, Zoning and Building Director Bob Basehart. Instead, Straub would be able to have many of the activities that spurred the village’s lawsuit, including weekly soccer games and polo matches.

But some residents have said on social media they fear the applications could lead to more development. Comments range from concerns about traffic and noise, to questioning how this could open the door for more growth.

“This is what you might call the camel’s nose under the tent,” Basehart said, pointing to Straub’s request to add more access from nearby roads to his properties — access he would need if he decided to use the land for something other than golf, soccer or polo.

Basehart confirmed Straub has expressed interest to Wellington in the past about building a senior care village on Palm Beach Polo’s long-defunct north course. Some age-restricted “conventional housing” was discussed, Basehart said, along with a walkable area with shops and restaurants for the residents and their visitors.

On the neighborhood social media website Nextdoor, one person published a post calling for residents to attend an upcoming meeting where the village Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board will consider Straub’s requests.

“A developer wants to build a significant medical/shopping/hotel development on the vacant land next to our library and Elbridge Gale Elementary School (the old Palm Beach Polo golf course),” the resident wrote.

Those ideas have only been discussed and are not part of the current requests, Basehart said: “None of that can happen unless applications are submitted.”

Straub did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.

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Council can’t give its opinion on matter

The concerns from residents are making their way off social media and into the ears of village council members, who raised the issue at the end of their meeting on Tuesday night.

Council members also have received phone calls and letters from residents, including those who live in Palm Beach Polo and Polo West. One person, who wrote to Mayor Anne Gerwig that she has lived in Palm Beach Polo since 1982, said she is “disgusted that Palm Beach Polo, Inc. is once again trying to open up our private club to the public.”

In another letter to Gerwig, a president of a homeowner’s association within Palm Beach Polo said he has a “strong objection” to the proposed changes.

“It is our belief that this request for a change in zoning will have a negative affect (sic) on our community,” he wrote.

While council members are receiving the comments, they are limited in how they can reply because the process is quasi-judicial, meaning the council or committee members who review the applications at public meetings “sit in a judge-like capacity,” village attorney Laurie Cohen said Tuesday night.

“You are hearing evidence, hearing testimony, reviewing evidence and making a determination based on the evidence that’s presented at the hearing whether the application should be approved,” Cohen told council members.

What that comes down to: When residents contact council members seeking their opinions, they won’t get it.

“If you have a pre-formed opinion of whether the application should be approved or not, then it would be difficult to say (the applicant) received a fair hearing,” Cohen added.

Additional roads

At Palm Beach Polo, Straub wants to add an entrance-only road from westbound Forest Hill Boulevard to the golf course on the north side of Forest Hill. That would connect to an exit behind the library on Royal Fern Boulevard.

Another proposed road would be a service entrance connecting the northernmost end of the north course at Palm Beach Polo with Birkdale Drive to the east. Basehart said Wellington’s staff “is not supporting” that request.

At Polo West, Straub has requested to build a new entrance and exit from Greenview Shores Boulevard to the northwest side of the course. And on Palm Beach Polo property under the Florida Power & Light Co. powerlines along Stribling Way, another two access roads are proposed.

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