By Kristen M. Clark
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — Any Wellington resident who thought the feud between the influential Jacobs family and equestrian developer Mark Bellissimo had dissipated or even gone away altogether: Think again.
Comments made at last week’s equestrian summit revealed the passionate opinions that have long divided the two camps are alive and well.
While most participants throughout the daylong summit spoke glowingly of the growth and success Bellissimo’s work has spurred for Wellington’s equestrian industry, the final group of participants offered a stark contrast.
Charlie Jacobs and several equestrian athletes — invited to the summit by Jacobs at the village’s request — raised pointed complaints about the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Without naming the specific target of their criticisms, top-ranked riders Mclain Ward and Rodrigo Pessoa said their sport has been “watered down” by people who “exploit” Wellington’s industry for financial gain.
“Every facet that is touched by the equestrian community here is being squeezed to its max,” said Ward, who’s ranked as the seventh-best jumper in the world and owns a farm in Wellington. “Everything is being exploited to its last dollar. There’s a point where it’s going to take away from the world-class level and it’s going to implode on itself.”
Pessoa said the winter festival’s success was “good enough” 10 years ago, but now “it’s saturated, it’s dangerous and it’s dirty.”
Ward said the festival’s crowding was “the joint fault of developers and producers and the community.”
Bellissimo took over the winter festival in 2007, and his company owns the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, where it’s held.
Bellissimo — who didn’t personally attend last week’s village summit — said he stands by his festival and pointed to the thousands of people it draws as proof of its quality.
“Businesses exist to serve customers, and customers are coming to this place in very significant numbers,” he said. “The presumption made by those few people flies in the face of the sophisticated people who are buying that product.”
“I’m confident they’re coming here because they believe it’s a high-quality product,” Bellissimo added. “We strive to make improvements every year and have, and that’s why it’s growing.”
The nearby Global Dressage Festival, now in its fourth year with Bellissimo at the helm, is also booming.
But its success hasn’t tempered opposition to the presence of its own venue, Equestrian Village — also owned and built by Bellissimo.
Critics in Wellington dislike how Bellissimo went about building the facility a few years ago, and the project attracted a flurry of lawsuits and other challenges mostly by the Jacobs family seeking to tear it down.
One of those lawsuits is still active. It’s set to go to trial next month in Palm Beach County.
The Jacobses own the 200-acre Deeridge Farm down the street off Pierson Road, and Charlie Jacobs owns a condo in the Palm Beach Polo neighborhood, so Equestrian Village lies in his backyard.
Ward, Pessoa and Olympian rider Margie Engle were invited to last week’s summit by the Jacobs family at the request of Wellington projects director Mike O’Dell, who said he lacked the contacts among equestrian athletes and wanted to include their voice in Tuesday’s summit.
The guest list for the summit included a broad range of equestrian stakeholders: landowners, event producers, trainers, horse owners, veterinarians, attorneys and former village leaders.
Earlier in the day, some participants referred to the dispute between the Jacobs family and Bellissimo as something that’s kept Wellington’s equestrian community from reaching its full potential.
“We need to address this — for lack of a better word — cancer that has us so divided,” said Ken Adams, one of Wellington’s founders and a former Palm Beach County commissioner.
“We’ve had a government for far too long now that’s been standing in between a big dog and its fire hydrant,” Adams said. “It’s time that stopped. It’s time we think of a rising tide that lifts all ships.”
In those discussions, stakeholders urged the village to let equestrian businesses operate more freely, but in contrast, the final group asked repeatedly what Wellington could do to control the growth and development of the village’s equestrian area, which is meant for “preservation.”
Charlie Jacobs, who himself competes at the winter festival, said he fears it has grown so large it’s harming the rural quality that he said makes Wellington special.
“I would hate for us to kill the golden goose, so to speak,” Jacobs said, calling on the village “to be the parent in the room to guide” equestrian industry leaders.
O’Dell said during the summit that the village’s power stops at its zoning and land-use regulations, because 95 percent of the land in Wellington’s equestrian preserve is owned by private entities.
“We don’t have a lot of control over that land,” O’Dell said, noting that the village is trying to find a balance in regulating where it can and to the right extent.
After hearing about the final session at the summit, Bellissimo said he met with Mayor Bob Margolis and Village Manager Paul Schofield on Friday.
He said he was “encouraged” about their takeaways from that day, saying he felt they indicated their support “to embrace a thriving industry.”
“We’ve been able to overcome a lot of that negative energy,” Bellissimo said.
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