By Kristen M. Clark
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — Wellington residents walked away from last week’s Village Council vote on K-Park with a range of emotions: relief, satisfaction, anger, disappointment, confusion.
While some residents said they wanted the 70 acres at the corner of Stribling Way and State Road 7 to remain a park, the general sentiment from about 350 residents in attendance was for some kind of action.
They didn’t want the 780 apartments that were included in the proposal council members ranked as their collective top choice, but they said they did want some development of the site.
Out of the six proposals submitted to the village, the crowd generally agreed that the Wellington Gardens concept was their favorite, although they acknowledged it could use some improvement.
Instead, the council rejected everything — wiping the slate clean for another do-over on K-Park for at least the third time since the village bought the land in 2003. Plans for a horse park fell through a year ago, and previous attempts to build a Palm Beach State College campus or an assisted-living facility there failed.
The abrupt 2-1 vote to keep the 70 acres as parkland left many feeling ignored, even slighted, several residents said.
“It was shocking. There was such a groundswell, and they ignored it for their own agenda,” said Dr. Satesh Raju, a pediatrician who lives in Wellington’s Castellina neighborhood, across from K-Park.
Group to press council
Tuesday’s was the first council meeting Raju said he’d ever attended, and the result has driven him and other residents into action.
Raju created a Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/KParkWellington, to rally residents, keep them better informed and encourage public input and collaborative ideas for K-Park — something he and other residents who spoke to The Palm Beach Post said they felt village leaders failed to do.
“There’s going to be variations of what people want,” Raju said. “But the overwhelming majority want an area, a venue with mixed-use elements of entertainment, public use and open access — not another gated community.”
Although council members held meetings for months to discuss this recent attempt to sell and develop K-Park, Tuesday was the first and only time residents had a chance to offer their own input to village leaders on the proposals submitted last fall.
“You wonder why there’s a pent-up desire to have input? We didn’t invite them until last night,” Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said Wednesday. Gerwig hadn’t been able to participate in any K-Park discussions since November because of a potential conflict of interest.
Most other council members defended the process as their only legal option and insisted they had been transparent, but residents said they felt purposely kept out of the loop.
The village website is too confusing, posted notices were hard to find and there was no effort or outreach to communicate with residents on a common level, they said.
Additionally, talk by the Village Council of having town hall meetings came at the eleventh hour. Vice Mayor John Greene — who residents praised Tuesday for urging a delay in the council vote so there could be more public input — advocated for a town hall for the first time only Monday.
Although council members said previously they wanted to have a town hall on K-Park, there was no discussion of scheduling any such event until after K-Park was slotted on last week’s agenda, at the council’s request.
“I’m a big believer of town hall meetings,” Mayor Bob Margolis said last week. “But based on the process that I had to go under, there really wasn’t any room or time to go for a town hall meeting.”
Councilman Matt Willhite said he didn’t want public pressure to influence the bidding process.
“If we’re going to circumvent that system to allow a social media campaign, then I don’t like where that process is going,” Willhite said. “The residents are very important, but they put us there to make decisions on their behalf. We don’t allow any individual or groups to dictate the process that ends up there. We can’t allow them to get in the middle of that.”
Rankings, votes at odds
Meanwhile, several residents told The Post that they left Tuesday’s meeting confused about both the future of K-Park and some of the council members’ actions, which were left somewhat unexplained that night.
Both Margolis and Willhite ranked the proposal from Bainbridge-Brefrank — with its 780 apartments, the highest-density residential of any of the six proposals — as their individual top choice.
Yet they were also the two council members who voted to keep K-Park as parkland. Greene had preferred Wellington Gardens in his ranking, but said Tuesday that preference didn’t mean he wanted to sell.
During the meeting, Margolis described himself as a “tree-hugger” who couldn’t support developing the land. Such apparent contradiction baffled residents, which Margolis later acknowledged to The Post.
“Legally, we had to rank and rate them,” Margolis said, citing the formal bidding process the village chose to vet the developers’ plans. “Was there some confusion that this person was going to vote for Bainbridge just because I voted them No. 1? You can see by my vote that I had every intention to keep it as a park.”
“I had every intention to explain (the ranking),” Margolis told a Post reporter, “but based on the environment Tuesday night, and the passion of the people who (Wellington Gardens principal Chuck Mineo) got to attend, I didn’t think there was time nor reason I should explain. I figured you were going to ask me that.”
Both Margolis and Willhite said they ranked Bainbridge-Brefrank joint venture as their top choice because they trusted the two companies’ history in Wellington and ability to pay for and build their ideas.
They also said Bainbridge-Brefrank’s top offer of $25 million was a factor, as was the reported demand for more apartments targeted at young professionals and families.
Margolis and Willhite emphasized that even if a project had been chosen Tuesday, the village would have had to hold at least six more public meetings to fully approve any development and refine the design concept.
So where does that leave K-Park now?
“It continues as farmland,” Willhite said.
Whenever the council regroups to consider K-Park again, several council members said the village needs to dictate what it wants from developers first.
“This was done completely backwards,” Gerwig said. “Until the majority of council decides what they want, I think it would be ridiculous to put it out again.”
*Online subscription may be required.