Residents question potential White Oak rezoning

Published 7:49 pm Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mark Bellissimo, far right, talks to a full house at CME Zion Church about the proposed development. (photo by Samantha Hurst)

Mark Bellissimo, far right, talks to a full house at CME Zion Church about the proposed development. (photo by Samantha Hurst)

Public hearing set for April 22 at 6 p.m.

Veer off Hwy. 74 at Pea Ridge Rd. and you’ll drive into a quiet corner of Polk County.

Many of the property owners here came into ownership as their land passed down through generations or specifically because they sought a rural setting in which to live.

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Now some wonder how much that rural setting could change if Polk County commissioners approve a rezoning request from Tryon Equestrian Properties (TEP) for 1,022 acres that includes a portion of the former White Oak development and additional properties. Commissioners expect to consider the request at their next meeting, Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at the Womack Building in Columbus. Public hearing regarding the rezoning and a development agreement begins at 6 p.m.

David Pschirer runs a cancer retreat center near the White Oak development. He’s concerned this new rezoning could completely change their rural oasis.

“It just being such a large scale, I wonder, are people ready for it,” Pschirer asked. “We bring people [to our retreat] with the idea of giving them a beautiful place to slow down and get away from the noise of the city. The housing development and a golf course is relatively small potatoes, but from what I hear they envision, this is a complete change in the nature of the area. Essentially it’s a temporary mini-city that will come in.”

On Tuesday, April 16 neighbors of the development and other interested community members gathered at Zion CME Church to pose questions to TEP partners Mark Bellissimo and Roger Smith.

Bellissimo and Smith have requested that the county rezone this area from multiple use zoning to a new district to be called Equestrian (E). Though Polk County has numerous equestrian facilities there is not currently a specific zoning for such properties, nor any facilities of the magnitude Bellissimo and Smith propose.

The development agreement states the developer anticipates a long-term investment that could exceed $90 million with the tax base exceeding $500 million.

Project plans include a maximum of 800 dwelling units including single-family residential and clustered multi-family condo/townhouses, a 350-unit hotel, private and public clubs; sports and recreation both indoor and outdoor including golf, tennis, fishing, hiking and nature, obstacle courses; multi-discipline equestrian center, summer camps, retail stores, restaurants, offices, fitness, spa and wellness center; camping/rental cabins/RV park; museum, covered arena, indoor arena, amphitheater, winery/vineyard; hospitality/convention center; lighted stadium with seating for 6,000; heliport, festivals; stabling for horses or other animals; auctions (animal and/or products); temporary tents; conservation easements or areas and retirement facilities, independent living and assisted living up to 100 units.

“What we’re trying to accomplish in this economy is very difficult,” said Bellissimo. “We’re not asking for a handout from the county. We’re not asking for a handout from the state. We’re simply trying to develop a new venue to attract people to this area.”

Smith said their plans are to focus first and foremost on the equestrian center, which he said would be vital to seeing the development to fruition. Residential and commercial elements would come later, he said.

Bellissimo added they wanted to see the first competitions being held next year.

“We need to get that approval done very, very quickly to meet that window to potentially have horseshows open next year,” Bellissimo said.

Smith, who has lived in Polk County with his wife, Jennifer, for more than a decade, said they want to get the initial phases of the project moving quickly, but do them right.

“The worst thing we could do is open the facility and have it disappoint,” Smith said. “You have to go slow and make sure you can accommodate the people that come.”

Bellissimo said at the high point of the show season, developers anticipate as many as 3,000 equestrians showing in a single day. Adding onto that number support staff and family members means the potential for upwards of 9-12,000 people – as much as six times the population of Tryon – in the area for a single weekend.

He added that The Palm Beach Sports complex recently provided an economic impact of $180 million to the Wellington, Fla. area.