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Developer Wants To Build On Preserve Lands Near Wellington Mall

A developer wants to build on land previously earmarked for conservation near the Mall at Wellington Green, in Wellington, Florida, an affluent part of Palm Beach County known for its equestrian scene and celebrity residents.  

Brefrank Inc. has proposed building a restaurant and 185 housing units at the corner of State Road 7 and Forest Hill Boulevard. To do so, the company needs both the Village of Wellington and the South Florida Water Management District to release it from obligations under decades-old agreements, including a conservation easement, that were designed to protect wetlands and green space. 

The Palm Beach County Environmental Alliance wrote on Facebook that if authorities allow the developer to renege on its conservation obligations, it will set “a catastrophic precedent."

A developer wants to build on a preserve area near the Mall at Wellington Green.

Palm Beach County in 1996 approved three development applications for a 466.3-acre parcel, known as Wellington Green, formerly known as Wellington Commons. Most of that area has now been developed, including the mall, which in 2014 was sold to Starwood Retail Partners.

Mark Offerman, chair of the Environmental Alliance, said that under original agreements, the developer was supposed to have protected and maintained 42 acres in total. About 17 acres would be destroyed if the developer goes forward with plans to build multifamily on the site.

The South Florida Water Management District on March 11 will consider Brefrank's request for a partial release of 8.593 acres of a 25.68-acre conservation easement. The developer has proposed buying mitigation credits and setting aside acreage elsewhere in the county in return for permission to develop the site. The developer has in the past argued that the wetlands are not functional.

The Wellington Village Council, which in the intervening years took over authority of the site from the county, on March 23 will consider whether to change sections of future land use maps of the area from “conservation" to "regional commercial/large scale multiple use" and whether to delete all prior conditions of approval that were approved by the county.

A consulting company handling the application process with Wellington on behalf of Brefrank did not respond to a request for comment from Bisnow. Brefrank principal Gary Koolik did not immediately respond to a message Wednesday.

Audubon Everglades President Scott Zucker said he's counted more than 30 species of birds on the site.

"Even though they are not perfect wetlands, it still has cypress and pond apple — traditional wetland trees," he said. Those trees provide respite and foraging areas for birds.

If building on the site is allowed, most of the animals and plants will almost surely die because there is no other suitable habitat nearby, the environmentalists said. Even if the authorities aren't concerned about the animals, they should consider that the wetlands serves as an important stormwater containment area, Offerman said. Without it, the nearby roads could be severely flooded on rainy days.

"That water sits on the surface and floods everything," Offerman said. "Hurricane Harvey laid that out in Texas very succinctly."

The Wellington Council in 2017 approved a hotel on the property. The resolution authorizing the approval said there would be “no adverse impacts to the natural environment."  

That resolution specified that the developer create a 1.1-acre preserve for the hand fern — a condition the developer has already complied with; prepare a management plan for the preserve; preserve and enhance 23 acres of wetland habitat; and maintain a buffer zone of native vegetation.

Images from a village staff report show a preserve area in Wellington, Florida, that could be developed.

petition by Offerman and a separate petition by other residents call on officials to stop the development effort.

“This move would remove 17 acres of green space, large tree canopies, homes of various wildlife to create move development we really don’t need in town," the second petition says. "We have plenty of retail space that have remained unoccupied for years. We don’t need more concrete and overdevelopment of town at the expense of our environment.”

Drew Martin, a former banking executive and environmentalist with the Sierra Club, said that the state recently took over certain permitting functions from the federal government under the Clean Water Act and this case could set a standard on whether conservation agreements are enforced.

If new multifamily housing is so necessary, he said, Brefrank should build atop its retail assets or in the underutilized mall parking lot.

"It's not being built so somebody can eat. It's so somebody can be grotesquely rich," he said. "If there's not pavement everywhere, they're not happy. It's all greed." 

The Mall at Wellington Green has been suffering from changing shopping trends. The Palm Beach Post reported that Starwood purchased the mall in October 2014 for $341.1M but its assessed value dropped to $150M in 2019. 

In 2019, Starwood Retail Partners pitched a plan to demolish a Nordstrom store and build 700 multifamily units, a hotel, restaurants, an amphitheater, volleyball courts and a 3.5-acre man-made Crystal Lagoon. That proposal was withdrawn for inactivity in December. A village website says that the plan is on hold and awaiting resubmittal.

Trepp reported in February that the Mall at Wellington Green is one of four malls backing a $681.6M loan, but that the malls have been losing anchor tenants and dropping in value.  

"The four malls contain 2.8M SF of retail space and had a combined valuation of $1.074B at securitization. The value was reduced to $366.7M more than a year ago," according to Trepp.