Wellington divided on controversial referendum question

The political titans are back in Wellington, pouring money into candidates’ campaign coffers to halt or promote growth. They did it two years ago and two years before that, but council seats aren’t the only thing at stake this time around.

A referendum question also is serving as an important battleground between billionaire Jeremy Jacobs and equestrian mogul Mark Bellissimo. If Question 3 passes, the charter amendment would effectively end any talk of hotels, motels, condo-hotels or apartments in the equestrian preserve.

So it’s no surprise that immense amounts of money are being spent on mailers and commercials to try to sway voters. Political Action Committees representing both sides of the issue have raised hundreds of thousands.

In the case of Preserve and Protect Wellington, that PAC has raised $540,000 after some late February donations. The PAC ran an ad in the Palm Beach Post on Sunday. It is fully funded by Jacobs’ family. Meanwhile, No to 3 has raised $150,000 through February.

Jacobs wants to protect the equestrian preserve. The family believes Wellington needs to hold onto the remaining green space and keep more development out of the preserve.

For Bellissimo, it’s about keeping options alive. He built a dressage venue, called Equestrian Village, at the corner of Pierson Road and South Shore Boulevard and initially proposed a four-story hotel at the site in 2012. After the council revoked his permits, he withdrew the hotel plans.

Conceivably, a future council could reverse course and allow such a project, but not if the referendum passes.

Question 3 passing would partially take zoning control in the equestrian preserve out of the hands of any future village council. Only another referendum of the voters could remove that provision from the charter.

The four council candidates — Bob Margolis and Anne Gerwig (battling for mayor) and John Greene and Michael Drahos (for council Seat 1) — are split over the amendment, but village staff isn’t choosing sides. Margolis and Greene are on Jacobs’ side and Drahos and Gerwig are on Bellissimo’s.

“The village does not take a position on the charter amendments,” Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said, addressing residents at a forum. “They are for you to decide.”

Despite some confusion among residents, the amendment would not prohibit groom’s quarters or other uses that are currently allowed, village officials have said.

Two other, less controversial questions will also be on the ballot.

  • Question 1 would put a provision in the charter to require a super majority of council to shrink the equestrian preserve and a simple majority to expand it.
  • Question 2 allows council to appoint a member of the community to the canvassing board in the event there is an even number. An odd number means there will always be a majority decision on a disputed ballot.

How we got here

In 2014, Wellington’s village council chose a group of five people to examine the charter and come up with recommendations to send to the voters.

The group, which met for a year, came up with six possibilities. But only one, Question 1, of the three that made the ballot was considered by the task force.

Question 3 was proposed by outgoing councilman Matt Willhite, whose campaigns have been continually supported by the Jacobs family.

The council unanimously voted to send all three questions to the voters.

But at least one member of the charter review task force is not happy with how Question 3 got on the ballot.

Jeff Kurtz, a former village attorney, said the amendment has some legal holes and likely will be challenged in court if it passes. He thinks Question 3 is vague enough that a court could see problems with it.

Cohen acknowledged that any charter amendment can be challenged. She said the village has a duty to defend it, and she thinks it can withstand a legal challenge.

The messages

Representatives on both sides of the issue aren’t just sitting on the thousands of dollars they have in referendum-specific PACs. They are putting the money to use with mailers and TV ads.

The “Preserve and Protect Wellington” PAC is portraying the danger of a built-out equestrian preserve. Mailers show images of construction vehicles and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The “No to 3” PAC argues that the charter amendment would damage Wellington’s economy and suggests voting the amendment down would be an end to the “corruption” and “infighting.”

Voters will have a chance Tuesday to choose a side — both in the vote for the candidates and for the referendum questions.

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