Planning board recommends White Oak rezoning

Published 3:27 pm Friday, March 15, 2013


White Oak Plantation received its first approval last week to become an equestrian destination in Green Creek.

The Polk County Planning Board unanimously approved recommending rezoning part of the approximate 1,000-acre subdivision as a new district called Equestrian (E).

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The planning board met Thursday, March 14 and heard from Tryon Equestrian Properties LLC representatives about their plans.

The planning board recommended the rezoning application on the condition that it is attached to the development agreement after hearing concerns from nearby residents.

Resident Jason Head said he is not fighting to stop an equestrian center, as he and others want to see an equestrian center built. His concerns, he said, is what if the current plan fails and the property is sold. The person who purchases it can do whatever they want with the new zoning, he said.

“Do I think they are going to build a fabulous facility,” Head asked. “Yes.”

Head said what they are trying to accomplish can be done with current county zoning by obtaining a conditional use permit. Head also raised concerns that he and others have tried to set up a meeting with the developers to talk about the project, but have been unsuccessful.

Mark Bellissimo, co-partner in Wellington, Fl., (Palm Beach International Equestrian Center) said when they took over in 2007, Wellington was a 5-7 week horse show and when he and his wife and Roger Smith (with Tryon Equestrian Properties and Wellington partner) and his wife went there they saw it as a different world. Bellissimo said the families see the Polk County property as an equestrian lifestyle for the whole community. He said Wellington was really exclusive and they changed that to be open to a wider range of people. They expanded the shows to 42 weeks and people began coming for longer periods of time, he said. Bellissimo said one of the first things they did in Florida was open it up to the schools and made it much more community active, which is what they plan to do in Polk County. He spoke of Wellington now doing fundraising for the community, inviting schools to sing the national anthem at the events, inviting seniors to come just to watch the horse as well as having Olympian horse riders.

“It’s centered around the love of the horse regardless of your economic standing or interest in horses,” Bellissimo said.

Bellissimo also said he and his daughter created a charity challenge four years ago in Wellington and hopes to have the same type of challenge in Polk County within the development’s first year. The challenge in Wellington allowed local charities to apply and they assigned them to 34 equestrian teams for a race to raise money for the local charities. The first year the event raised $500,000, Bellissimo said, and last year the event raised $1.5 million.

“The relevance of that is that not only do we engage the schools, but now charities,” Bellissimo said.

Bellissimo said what they did in Wellington was change the center to very engaging and affordable for the whole community. He said it’s no longer a show for a small group of people. Whether you want to ride a carousel, watch an event or eat food, the center is for everyone, Bellissimo said.

He also said the partners do not want to create another Wellington in Polk County, but think this is a great place, especially due to its equestrian history and climate to create “a world that doesn’t exist.”

“Tryon is not Wellington and Wellington is not Tryon,” Bellissimo said. “We have no interest in making Tryon Wellington.”

He also said the partners, which he envisions as he and his family, Smith and his family and probably four other families think White Oak will be a 10 to 15 year project. He said they inherited a difficult structure in Wellington and learned from their mistakes there.

“Here is a blank slate,” Bellissimo said. “I hope we can work to make it exciting for everyone, not just someone who owns a horse.”

The planning board and Tryon Equestrian Properties attorney Billy McFarland addressed some concerns regarding the district such as lighting and height of buildings. The Equestrian district draft includes a maximum of 50 ft. height of buildings and restrictions on lighting, including that lights be turned off by 11:30 p.m.

Some planning board members expressed concerns over how a development such as White Oak will change the community.

Christel Walters said some in the county have wondered why a project such as White Oak would want to come to Polk County.

“I think you want to attract the people that are first class,” Walters said. “Some of the people who’ve lived here a long time may not be able to afford to live here. How do we deal with that?”

Bellissimo said that’s a struggle that everyone faces and there will be elevated property values in some areas. But, he said Smith is building this in his back yard in a community that he loves and he will do it right. He also said this will be an opportunity to create jobs and for others to benefit.

“I don’t think it will be to a point it will push people out,” Bellissimo said. “Hopefully the economic benefits will offset the change and the growth.”

Other concerns included involving the community in meetings during the process, especially surrounding neighbors. Planning board members Susan Welsh and Lisa Krolak said they’d like for community meetings to be held, with Krolak mentioning Foster Creek Development’s process of holding several community meetings prior to being approved.

The next step in the process is for the Polk County Board of Commissioners to approve the rezoning, which will require a public hearing. Commissioners will also have to approve a development agreement for the project.