Shouting, tension mark meeting on controversial Wellington proposals

In a meeting that stretched more than four hours and at one point devolved into shouting matches between opposing sides, Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee voted to make recommendations on two controversial applications for proposed changes to golf courses at Polo West and Palm Beach Golf and Country Club.

Ultimately, the committee voted Oct. 4 to recommend to the village’s Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board that it should deny the most-debated pieces of each application, decisions that were met with applause by some in the audience and frustrated looks by others.

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In his requests, developer Glenn Straub asked the village to change the way the land can be used on the golf course at Polo West, and on two courses — those to the immediate north and south of Forest Hill Boulevard — at Palm Beach Polo, from golf and golf-related activities only to include field and equestrian sports.

Straub also requested several new access points. One would connect from Greenview Shores Boulevard to the west side of Polo West. At Palm Beach Polo, he has requested three access points to the north course: service-only access from the north end of the course to Birkdale Drive, an exit onto Royal Fern Drive behind the Palm Beach County Library’s Wellington branch, and right-in, right-out-only access to Forest Hill Boulevard.

The only part of the Palm Beach Polo application for which the committee voted to recommend approval is to change the land use and add two new entrances onto Straub’s property along Stribling Drive under the FPL powerlines.

The committee also voted to recommend approval to change the land use for Polo West’s golf course to golf and equine sports — without field sports or the new access from Greenview Shores.

The village and Straub have sparred in recent years over weekly soccer games held at Palm Beach Polo without Straub obtaining special-use permits through the village for the events. Straub’s attorney, Alexander Domb, told the committee the goal of the applications was to allow events at Palm Beach Polo and Polo West that are not golf, so Straub does not face similar fines and litigation in the future.

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“This is not an application to change any zoning,” Domb said. “This is merely an application to add the definition to the open space recreation that presently exists for golf course, to add field sports and equine sports.”

But residents in both cases have charged that Straub’s long-term goal is development — something at least one member of the public acknowledged to the committee.

“The highest and best use of that property is to develop it,” said Polo West resident John Lacy. “There’s no money in soccer.”

In the case of Polo West, residents said the proposed entrance off Greenview Shores Boulevard would destroy the existing nine-hole course.

“I cannot envision how you could put an entrance off Greenview Shores and not kill the par-3 hole that is there,” said Michael Bach, whose home backs up to the Polo West golf course.

“If you approve the entrance across from the high school, there will be no more golf course there,” said Stephen Stack, whose home also sits along the course.

Others asked the committee to recommend denial of Straub’s request for field sports in addition to equestrian and golf at Polo West, comments that were met with raucous applause from some in the audience, prompting committee chair Jane Cleveland to call for quiet.

Tensions in the room came to a head after Polo West homeowners association president Ken Valdespino, nearing the end of his public comments, mentioned that the Polo West HOA owns the road leading into the community.

“We’d be willing to sit down with Mr. Straub if he ever wants to sit down and talk, besides doing some of the ridiculous things he does,” Valdespino said, referring to signs along the course that say, “Private property. Keep out.”

Valdespino followed that by saying, “Look at that. That’s ridiculous.”

Straub erupted from his second-row seat in council chambers: “That’s right, sir. I pay my taxes,” he said, as Cleveland attempted to interject.

“Go buy it,” Straub said to Valdespino, who replied, “I don’t want to buy it.”

Cleveland continued to call for order as Straub yelled, “Nobody can sit here and call me names, ma’am.”

Straub and Valdespino continued their exchange for a few more seconds before Cleveland’s gavel broke through. “Either one of you can leave,” she said.

With the Palm Beach Polo application, a sticking point for committee members and residents who commented on the proposal was safety, and the potential for crime should those attending any events be allowed to bypass the manned guard gate.

But a request for an entrance from the north course onto Sunnydale Drive — also known as Sunny Drive — was withdrawn, with staff saying that because Sunnydale Drive is a private road, the request should be made from Straub to the Palm Beach Polo property owners’ association, not the village.

Village planning and zoning staff stressed that with both applications, no new construction or “intensity” in use would be allowed without another, separate request from Straub.

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