In 1978, an elegant Chicago businessman named Bill Ylvisaker bought land in Wellington, Florida, then a sleepy little town 15 miles west of Palm Beach. A championship-winning polo player, Ylvisaker is credited with bringing polo and all its preppy glamour to the place. In the 80s, Prince Charles traveled to Wellington to play the sport of kings while Princess Diana cheered in the stands, and Estée Lauder and Joan Collins mingled at Ylvisaker’s Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. “Bill invited all of Hollywood,” says a longtime resident. “We had Zsa Zsa Gabor; we had all these wonderful actors.”
Into the 90s, Wellington managed to retain its air of exclusivity while becoming one of the most important destinations on the international horse-show circuit. The Winter Equestrian Festival—founded in 1979 by Gene Mische, another renowned horseman and the owner of Stadium Jumping—grew in popularity, earning Wellington the nickname “the winter equestrian capital of the world.”
By the 2010s, celebrities and billionaires had bought farms and houses there, including Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs (whose daughters Jennifer and Eve are equestrians), Michael Bloomberg (same for his daughter Georgina), Bruce Springsteen (ditto for his daughter Jessica), and Tommy Lee Jones (who’s a polo player). Wellington had become a town where powerful families such as the Schulmans, Sternlichts, and Newhouses all visited or bought properties. Today, an acre of land there costs around $1.3 million, and the most expensive homes have sold for upwards of $30 million.
What’s made Wellington so attractive, for those who can afford it, is the rarefied atmosphere, which revolves around horses. “It’s like a Twilight Zone where horses are gods,” I jotted in a notebook on a visit there in the early 2000s.
All along the bridle paths, there are riders trotting along on stunning steeds, while little girls sit high in Hermès saddles and adults zoom by on golf carts emblazoned with the logos of their farms.
“I think it’s pretty much paradise here,” says Victoria McCullough, the owner and chairman of Chesapeake Petroleum, the largest private oil company in America, and the owner of Mida Farms.
But now, McCullough fears, what makes Wellington special “will totally change,” if Mark Bellissimo gets permission to move ahead with his plans to build a luxury residential club community on what some see as Wellington’s “holy ground.”
The Bellissimo Époque
“What is Wellington 3.0?,” Bellissimo, 61, asked at a meeting of Wellington’s Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board on September 2, 2022. A big man with wavy gray-brown hair who resembles Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) on Downton Abbey, he was presenting to the public for the first time his idea for what is now being called the Wellington Equestrian & Golf Club.
The project is a joint venture of Bellissimo’s Wellington Lifestyle Partners and Nexus Lifestyle Partners, a high-end real-estate developer responsible for upmarket resorts such as the Albany, in the Bahamas. It proposes a 600-acre residential community consisting of 210 new houses, a golf course, tennis courts, pickleball courts, four swimming pools, a 40,000-square-foot fitness center with a spa, a “luxury boutique hotel,” six restaurants, offices, 24 shops, and more.
But here’s the catch, and the catalyst for the battle that has been raging ever since Bellissimo’s first presentation to the board last year: he and his partners are proposing that the land for the residential community come out of Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve—a bucolic space consisting of 9,000 acres of privately owned land (some of it showgrounds and farms) that the town set aside decades ago to limit development within its borders and keep Wellington horsey.
Some people in Wellington regard the preserve as their “Yellowstone” and see Bellissimo’s development as “a threat to the equestrian way of life.”
“The average Wellingtonian loves the Equestrian Preserve,” says the longtime resident. And “a preserve is called a preserve for a reason.”
The 1.0-to-3.0 Pipeline
Bellissimo, a Gatsby-esque figure, moved to Wellington in 2004 when he was reportedly still the C.E.O. of a sales-force automation company called Brandwise. Prior to that, he made a fortune with a software company called Connectz, as well as other enterprises.
The son of an owner of a small food service business, Bellissimo grew up in Natick, Massachusetts, and went to Andover, Middlebury, and Harvard Business School. He has said that when he moved to Wellington from Weston, Massachusetts, it was largely because his daughter Paige, now 31, loved to ride, as did his ex-wife, Katherine Kaneb, 60, with whom he has three other grown children.
(In 2019, Bellissimo filed for divorce from Kaneb after 30 years of marriage; the following year, he married British eventing rider Lucienne Elms, 40. In August, Kaneb sold the 20-acre, 26,430-square-foot estate she won in the divorce for $21.85 million. Bellissimo and Elms now live in a neighborhood called Bridle Path, the most affluent part of Wellington’s Palm Beach Polo Club.)
In the nearly 20 years Bellissimo has lived in Wellington, his impact on the town has been substantial. In 2006, he entered the horse business in a major way by buying the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center—Wellington’s expansive show-jumping complex and home to the Winter Equestrian Festival—from developer Glenn Straub for $135 million.
Some people in Wellington regard the preserve as their “Yellowstone” and see Mark Bellissimo’s development as “a threat to the equestrian way of life.”
Bellissimo did much to grow Wellington’s horse show, first extending it from six weeks to several months. He invited luxury vendors into the once hallowed showgrounds, where he also installed a Jumbotron and thousands of plastic stadium seats. He put a carousel near the main show ring and inaugurated a family night he dubbed “Saturday Night Lights,” which featured magicians, fire eaters, and clowns.
The local equestrian industry became a significantly more profitable business under Bellissimo’s influence—a phase he refers to as “Wellington 2.0.” In 2005, it brought an estimated $57 million into the local economy. By the 2020s, its contribution had almost quintupled.
Meanwhile, the commercialization of the horse show rankled some people, especially those among the old guard—which, in Wellington, consists of such horse-world luminaries as Victoria McCullough, Jeremy Jacobs (owner of the Boston Bruins hockey team), the Ingrams (of Ingram Industries, a manufacturing company based in Nashville), Janne Rumbough (Wellington’s “first lady of dressage”), and Carlos Arellano and his three generations of polo players.
“Bellissimo paints himself as a savior,” McCullough says with some disdain. “Bellissimo was never an equestrian,” sniffs an old-guard resident.
But it isn’t only upper-crust Wellingtonians who seem to chafe at some of the changes Bellissimo has brought to the town. “There are some people who really don’t care for him,” says Kristina Webb, a reporter for The Palm Beach Post and writer of the blog Wellington Mom.
“There are a lot of people in this area that do not like Mr. Bellissimo,” says Jeffrey Robbert, chair of the Wellington Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board. “He doesn’t always have the best track record for following through on some of his developments.” For example, Robbert says, “the dressage events,” which Bellissimo owns, “were actually running under capacity because there were improvements that he was required to do to the roadway that he never did,” until this year. And then there are people who “think he’s driven by money,” says Webb.
But even as some of his initial fans faded away, Bellissimo and his investors in Wellington Equestrian Partners, formed in 2006—investors who “like to stay a little more incognito,” Bellissimo’s daughter Paige, who works with him, tells me—continued to buy up thousands of acres of land in the town to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Horses or Houses?
Now, the question is: Will Bellissimo and his partners be able to convince the Wellington Village Council—a body of five people including the mayor, Anne Gerwig—to change the zoning laws protecting the Equestrian Preserve, which they must do in order to build their development?
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” says Victoria McCullough, a leading member of what Doug McMahon, senior managing director of Nexus Luxury Collection, calls “the opposition.”
Their motto, as seen on social media and bumper stickers around town, is “Horses, not Houses.”
The opposition consists of several groups, all of whom have retained lawyers to represent their interests in this fight: the Equestrian Club Estates; the Coalition to Save Wellington; Protect the Equestrian Preserve; the Palm Beach Polo Club. And then “there’s all the rest of us who show up [to all the Village Council meetings] and have things to say,” says Jane Cleveland, the owner of Poinciana Farm and chair of the Equestrian Preserve Committee.
For the last year, the opposition has been drafting petitions and writing letters to the Village Council, posting on social media and making Web sites promoting their cri de coeur (“Horses, not Houses”). A post on NextDoor by Maureen Brennan, a polo player and owner of San Saba Polo Farm, gained tens of thousands of likes and many impassioned comments. (“Keep us equestrian!!!!” “We’ve had enough of this group”—meaning Bellissimo and his development partners.)
One thing the opposition and others in Wellington (which has around 61,000 residents) say they worry about is just who will be buying the houses in the new residential community—houses which the developers say will start at $3 million. Some fear it will be affluent members of the finance and commercial sectors who have been called “Wall Street Southers,” a somewhat derogatory name for the influx of this demographic currently congesting West Palm Beach.
“Bellissimo paints himself as a savior,” one longtime resident says. “Bellissimo was never an equestrian,” sniffs another.
The opposition has also been engaged in near-obsessive speculation about Bellissimo.
“Is this why he’s been selling assets?” asked one of their members, referring to how, in 2021, Bellissimo sold the Palm Beach Equestrian Center for an undisclosed amount to the Global Equestrian Group, a Danish company helmed by Andreas Helgstrand (who last month failed in his attempt to stop the upcoming release of a documentary, Operation X, which reportedly shows undercover footage of alleged animal cruelty at his Helgstrand Dressage stables).
And then, in 2022, Bellissimo sold the International Polo Club Palm Beach—a 161-acre property including fields, a social club, and a restaurant, which he acquired for $72 million in 2016—to the United States Polo Association for $95 million.
Some wonder if it was all just preparation for Bellissimo’s investment in his pièce de résistance—the Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club—which could potentially make him richer than ever.
“But at what cost to Wellington?” asks Cleveland.
Lessons in Density
Doug McMahon says it was in October of last year that Mark and Paige Bellissimo approached him, “looking for a real-estate development partner to help them reimagine what they could do with lands that they owned.”
Bellissimo and his partners do in fact own the land in the preserve on which they seek to build—land that also enjoys protections under Wellington’s special bylaws. And while the owners have “development rights,” as McMahon frequently points out, they don’t have free rein in terms of density, or the number of buildings they’re allowed to build. Which is essentially why they’re appealing to the Village Council to take land out of the preserve.
“We don’t want density,” Maureen Brennan says, summing up the opposition’s position. “In the history of this country, horses go when houses come.”
In April, Nexus announced that it had formed a new company with the Bellissimos called Wellington Lifestyle Partners (McMahon is C.E.O.), which would develop and manage the proposed Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club. Justin Timberlake, Tiger Woods, and the South African golfer Ernie Els were named in media reports, but McMahon clarifies that they’re technically just investors in Nexus. (Nexus is owned, by the way, by the Tavistock Group, a private investment company whose British founder, Joe Lewis, was indicted in July in New York for insider trading. He pleaded not guilty.)
As for the cost, “the investment is large in infrastructure, horizontal work, and amenities totaling more than $275 million of investment before you’re selling real estate,” says McMahon. “This will be a project that’ll go on for the next 7 to 10 years.”
“We don’t want density. In the history of this country, horses go when houses come.”
“We have two large parcels of land that will be core parts of the residential community,” he says, “and all the amenities you would think of in terms of clubhouses, pool, fitness, spa, racquet sports, and golf. We plan to bring top architects to our project here in western Palm Beach County. Then we have an additional piece of land, about 17 acres outside of the Equestrian Overlay Zoning District”—that is, the preserve—“where we plan to create a charming Main Street. Not just another power shopping center, which South Florida has so many of. We’re going to try to do something pretty special.”
“But what about it is equestrian?” asks Jane Cleveland, pointing out that the town’s comprehensive plan states that the purpose of the preserve is to protect and enhance the equestrian lifestyle.
Bellissimo and Wellington Lifestyle Partners have offered the town a work-around for that: in exchange for allowing 96 acres of land to come out of the preserve, they say, they will improve the quality and double the size of the existing showgrounds on their property.
But this proposal has not appeased the opposition. “It’s like extortion,” one of their members grumbles.
“Essentially what is being put on the table is kind of a quid pro quo,” says Leonard Feiwus, legal counsel for the Coalition to Save Wellington and the Equestrian Club Estates, where Marc Kasowitz, a powerhouse Manhattan attorney, also owns a home. (Feiwus is a lawyer at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres.)
“They’re saying, If you give us these concessions, we’ll build this other stuff for you; we’re going to make the showgrounds really great,” Feiwus says. “But the problem is that even though the quid is spelled out, the quo is not.”
“It’s like extortion.”
Some residents have expressed concern that they haven’t seen as detailed a plan for the promised improvements to the showgrounds as for the residential community. “They’re afraid the houses are going to come before the showgrounds are built,” explains Cory Cramer, Wellington’s planning and zoning manager.
“Or if the [showgrounds] will ever be built,” says another member of the opposition.
(McMahon responds to this by explaining that “Global Equestrian Group is shepherding” the showground plans, “and they have just started the process.” Bellissimo did not respond to requests for comment.)
In addition, some residents worry that relinquishing 96 acres, no matter what the conditions, will set a dangerous precedent that will mean the end of the preserve. (The other 500-plus acres in the proposed development would comprise the showgrounds and an already existing golf course, which the developers plan to refurbish.)
“If we give up 96 acres, then we’re just going to have this total domino effect, parcel after parcel getting developed,” Brennan says.
“What we have here is unique and such a treasure,” says Cleveland. “If we give an inch, it can all unravel very quickly.”
The town meetings addressing the Wellington Equestrian and Golf Club controversy have been “heated,” says Kristina Webb. “It’s been really contentious.”
“If we give up 96 acres, then we’re just going to have this total domino effect.”
A July meeting of the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board that was supposed to last two nights went on for three, with many emotional speeches from the public and applause and cheering and groans as people on each side tried to make their cases. The problems of the increased traffic and school overcrowding that the new development could create were discussed, as well as the potential environmental impact. (Members of the opposition hired an environmental consultant from the South Florida Wildlands Association whose report warns of risks to the wetlands in the preserve and recommended the Village Council deny the request to change the zoning laws protecting it.)
But the main focus was horses, and horse people.
“I don’t see how a high-density, non-equestrian golf community is needed to expand the horse show,” said Jim Gavigan, a lawyer for the Jacobs family, which has tussled with Bellissimo before, opposing his 2011 bid to build another major development in Wellington. (The project never happened.)
That got a loud round of applause.
Bellissimo came to none of these meetings.
After 15 hours of discussion, the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board made its recommendation to the Village Council: either reject the plan to remove the 96 acres from the Equestrian Preserve or table the decision until there is a detailed plan for the expanded showgrounds. The council has the final decision, which happens through a vote to take place in meetings between October 10 and 12.
But even if they vote to allow the development to proceed, the opposition says, that won’t be the end of it. “You’ve certainly got enough people on every side that has the means to tie this up for years in litigation if they wanted,” says Jeffrey Robbert.
“It’s an awful place to be when you wake up in the morning and you’ve been dreaming of offering him money to get out and just stop doing this,” Victoria McCullough said to me the week before the upcoming vote. “How much would it take?”
She was talking about Bellissimo.
Nancy Jo Sales is a journalist whose 2010 article for Vanity Fair “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” inspired the Sofia Coppola film The Bling Ring. She is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno