Bankruptcy stalls controversial Flying Cow Ranch project in Wellington

A controversial proposal to build an equestrian-aviation neighborhood is on hold indefinitely after the project’s developer filed for bankruptcy.

Plans for Flying Cow Ranch include single-family homes on large lots with barns or hangars on a 150-acre, triangle-shaped property south of the Wellington Environmental Preserve and west of Flying Cow Road. The bankruptcy filing puts the project’s future in question as its developer must decide whether to move forward with a contract to purchase the land.

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Flying Cow Ranch HC LLC filed for bankruptcy in March, court records show. The organization’s manager, James Hall of Jupiter, is listed in the filing as a co-debtor.

According to court documents, Flying Cow Ranch HC owes more than $178,000 in fees to attorneys and planning groups related to the project.

The organization had $30,000,059.68 in assets as of March 30, records show. Of that money, $59.68 is in a Bank of America checking account. The other $30 million lies in the organization’s contract to buy the land where the Flying Cow Ranch project is proposed, documents show.

RELATED: Controversial Flying Cow Ranch proposal resurrected in Wellington

That contract, dated December 2014, has not been executed and has become a point of contention between the organization and the property’s current owners, the McCarthy Land Trust, which argued in a court filing that Flying Cow Ranch HC has not paid required extension fees after failing to close within 30 months of the December 2014 contract date.

McCarthy Land Trust’s attorney, Fort Lauderdale-based Thomas Abrams, asked the bankruptcy court in April to force Flying Cow Ranch HC and Hall to make a decision: Do they want the land or not?

“The Debtors (Flying Cow Ranch HC and Hall) are using this bankruptcy court as a litigation tool, delay tactic and free ride,” Abrams wrote. “This is not a good faith bankruptcy.” Abrams declined to comment beyond the court filings.

But Flying Cow Ranch HC argued that project delays should be taken into consideration, court records show. The village has yet to approve several requests to:

  • Change the future land use for the smallest piece of the property from Palm Beach County conservation use to Wellington residential “B” to allow for homes to be built.
  • Extend Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Area to include the smallest parcel. The other two parcels already are included.
  • Add proposed Flying Cow Ranch public and private trails to the village’s equestrian trails master plan.
  • Receive approval of a master plan to allow 30 residential units, a clubhouse, hangars, barns, a recreational area and a tie-down space for airplanes. The master plan also includes extending the land’s existing airstrip to 4,000 feet with a 400-foot buffer at each end.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Mindy A. Mora agreed in part with the McCarthys, saying on June 22 that Wellington’s lack of approval for the applications did not constitute “force majeure” — unforeseen circumstances that prevent a contract from closing.

PAST COVERAGE: Is proposed Wellington airstrip, community too close to the Aero Club?

She gave Flying Cow Ranch HC until Friday to decide whether or not to move forward with the contract. If Hall and Flying Cow Ranch say no, it could mean the end of the project. If they say yes, they will have to meet the contract’s requirements and pay any money owed to the McCarthys.

However, Flying Cow Ranch HC on Friday asked for more time to make its decision. Mora will hear that request on July 24.

The organization also asked Mora to reconsider her decision that Wellington’s lack of approval was not unforeseen. “The Court failed to recognize that the actions of the City of Wellington were wholly outside of the control of the Debtor or McCarthy and completely unforeseeable,” Flying Cow Ranch HC attorney Kenneth Rappaport said in Friday’s filing. Rappaport did not return a request for comment.

When Flying Cow Ranch’s applications came last year before two Wellington boards — the Equestrian Preserve Committee and Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board — the project faced significant opposition from neighbors in nearby developments, including the Aero Club and Palm Beach Point. The applications were put on hold for several months as Hall and Flying Cow Ranch HC requested more time to meet with those neighbors to address concerns about noise and potential flight-path conflicts between the extended airstrip and the Aero Club.

There still is a possibility the project could happen. The applications were reactivated in June after being on hold. With the bankruptcy filing, they go into limbo once more because the filing freezes the escrow account from which Wellington draws fees throughout the planning process, Planning, Zoning and Building Director Bob Basehart said. That money could be used to hire outside consultants to assess the applications for the village, including traffic and aeronautical experts, he said.

With the escrow account on hold, that money could only come from one other place, Basehart said — Wellington taxpayers. “And we’re not going to spend the taxpayers’ money on that,” he said.

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