NEW: Jury rules in favor of Bellissimo in Equestrian Village dispute

6:05 p.m Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Local
The Equestrian Village in Wellington is at the center of a five-year lawsuit that recently marked a milestone as a jury ruled in favor of Mark Bellissimo and his plans to build a hotel, condos and retail on the site. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

A long-running dispute between two of Wellington’s biggest names marked a milestone recently as a jury found in favor of equestrian mogul Mark Bellissimo in a lawsuit brought against him by the Jacobs family.

The jury’s decision was issued Dec. 11 and followed a 10-day trial that saw jurors ferried from the Palm Beach County Courthouse in West Palm Beach to Bellissimo’s contested Equestrian Village property at the corner of Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard. The trial also included hours of expert testimony covering everything from planned-unit developments to the preservation of green space in Wellington.

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Boston Bruins CEO Charles Jacobs, his wife Kimberly and their company, Solar Sportsystems Inc., sued several of Bellissimo’s companies in 2012 over his plans to develop Equestrian Village, a project that would include a hotel, condominiums and retail space.

Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Small still must issue a final judgment, which is expected within 30 to 60 days.

At issue in the trial: Whether or not Bellissimo’s plans for the Equestrian Village and the complex now used primarily for dressage that he and his Wellington Equestrian Partners built on the site are within the “scheme of development” for the area. The lawsuit sought to raze the dressage complex — where the Adequan Global Dressage Festival now is held — and adjoining barns.

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The property formerly was part of the Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club before developer Glenn Straub divided what was “outside the gates” into parcels and sold part of that to Bellissimo in 2005. Other pieces — the land where the Saddle Shops shopping plaza now stands and the property that now houses the Palm Beach Equine Clinic — were sold separately to other buyers.

The Jacobs family argued that because the Equestrian Village had been part of Palm Beach Polo, it still should be subject to the development scheme — essentially an agreement among property owners to follow a set of development rules — of the Palm Beach Polo Property Owners Association.

Charles and Kimberly Jacobs own a condo unit on Polo Island Drive in Palm Beach Polo and so are part of the POA. The association was included as a defendant when the lawsuit first was filed, but settled with the Jacobses for an undisclosed amount.

Bellissimo argued his plans are in the spirit of the history of the site. At trial, his team called a witness who previously worked for Straub and testified there had been a hotel and apartments in Palm Beach Polo in the past.

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Jurors were asked to rule yes or no on 21 questions. They responded unanimously in favor of Bellissimo on all 21.

While the jurors found there was a development scheme in place when the dressage facility was built, they said Equestrian Village and Bellissimo’s plans did not “impair a then-existing scheme or plan of development of the Polo POA.”

Speaking to The Palm Beach Post on Friday, Bellissimo said growing the Equestrian Village is essential to the viability of his business, which now comprises much of the equestrian industry in Wellington: He and his companies and partners own Equestrian Village, the International Equestrian Center, Wanderers Club and International Polo Club.

“I think it’s the most important thing Wellington can do: Create a place that is open to the community but it’s sort of a nice town center that fuses equestrians and non-equestrians,” he said, adding that his enterprises employ nearly a thousand people.

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“We’ve invested $350 million in Wellington,” he said. “So it’s a massive investment. But we don’t go around telling people. We really want to focus on creating something special.”

The Jacobs family also has said it is trying to protect Wellington’s green space — something Bellissimo disputes, saying a thriving equestrian industry in Wellington means more farms and fewer opportunities for outside developers to come in, buy property and develop single-family home neighborhoods.

Jeff Bass, an attorney representing the Jacobs family, declined to comment citing pending litigation.

Depending on the judge’s ruling, Bellissimo’s plans for the Equestrian Village still would need to go through Wellington’s development process, which would begin with a development review, then a hearing before the Equestrian Preserve Committee, followed by hearings before the Planning, Zoning and Adjustments Board and finally the village council.