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Babcock Eco City In Full Swing
Eleven years after the Babcock family put 143 square miles of ranch lands on the market, developer Syd Kitson received a hero’s welcome Friday at the construction site of the eco-centric city he envisioned on a tiny fraction of those lands.
“Thank you, we won’t disappoint you,” Kitson told a crowd of over 600, as tractors raced in the background to put up the first phase of Florida’s first solar-powered town of 19,500 residences by summer’s end.
Straddling Lee and Charlotte counties, the city of Babcock Ranch started when Kitson bought the historic ranch of that name in the summer of 2006, and sold back 80 percent of it to the state to be preserved in perpetuity.
From a development perspective, Babcock Ranch offers a clean sheet of paper to bring the latest ideas in sustainable living to market in one fell swoop.
Still morphing and growing, the phase one plans include:
A 75-megawatt solar plant capable of powering over 21,000 residences during daylight hours
Florida green build-certified homes with eco-options including solar rooftops
1 gigabyte fiberoptic cable capacity to every home
Native landscape and gray water irrigation systems
Health center with telehealth services
Automated cars for shared, driverless transport within the community
Over 50 miles of trails with fishing, camping and picnic areas, tree houses, and a trailhead in every neighborhood.
Lakefront town center with outdoors outfitter, restaurant, general store and The Hatchery, a business incubator
Walkable schools, starting with a K-8 charter school opening in the fall of 2017.
Locally grown produce
Homes, condos and town homes priced from mid-$100s for condos to $200s to $900,000 for single-family homes.
A front porch culture with no gates and mixed price ranges in each neighborhood.
From an environmental perspective, the city is the biggest public-private partnership attempt yet to preserve pristine Florida lands the size of Manhattan in the face of unstoppable growth.
Promising a conservation win
Sighting down a wetlands with his binoculars, Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper called the town plan "as ideal as it can be for putting a town there to begin with.”
“As hundreds of thousands of people pour into Florida every year, the land gets cut into smaller and smaller pieces that are hard to manage environmentally,” said Draper, who admitted he’s still getting used to the idea of a city coming out of the ground on lands he’s known as almost untouched.
“Cities like Babcock are Florida’s best hope to build sustainably,” he said.
Before Babcock, the Audubon director said he saw miles of Florida ranch lands converted to subdivisions with no conservation values applied. “Here there is conservation,” he said.
Kitson described siting Babcock on the most disturbed of the ranch lands – sod farms, rock mines, cattle pastures and tenant farms that will continue operating until the homes build out.
On top of that, 10 percent of the 20 he kept for the city will be dedicated to community green space, he said.
While he’s handing over management of the preserve to the state, Kitson said he’ll keep Babcock cattle hands working on 18,000 acres owned by the town to preserve a traditional use of the land.
“I hope people will use us as a model for smart growth,” he said
For that to happen, Draper says the biggest issue going forward is “for Lee and Charlotte counties to hold other developers to the same standards as Babcock Ranch.”
Whether the city approach to growth management works, or simply invites unregulated development to come behind it like camels’ humps, depends on the counties, he said.
How solar is it?
When Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy met Kitson in 2007, a city powered by the sun had never been done before, anywhere, he said.
Now FPL crews are laying the first rows of solar panels in a field that will provide enough energy to power more than 19,500 single-family homes during daylight hours. The community will use FPL’s conventional, natural gas-powered grid by night.
“Cost was a challenge, as you can imagine,” Silagy said of Kitson’s original idea. “So Kitson said to me, ‘OK, we’ll just give you the land. That’ll cut your cost down. What else you got?’”
Silagy recalls, “I was like, ‘Pardon me?’”
Kitson became known as “the guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer,” finally convincing FPL to think of scaling its solar plant up.
Currently the utility is buying a million solar panels for three projects going on simultaneously that will triple its solar generation in DeSoto, Manatee and Hendry counties, Silagy said.
Asked what a million solar panels looks like: “If you stretched them end to end, you could walk on them from Babcock Ranch to the Chicago suburbs,” he said.
About 20 truckloads of panels are deposited daily to the 450-acre solar field site located at the north end of the city, where FPL crews lay them in rows of about 500, 15 rows to an array.
A nearby substation also under construction will distribute the power to the community and FPL grid.
The panels have a 30-year life rating, can withstand 80-mile-per-hour winds, and are expected to need less cleaning because they’ll be washed by Florida rains.
Residents in and outside Babcock Ranch will have the same rates, which the utility says are a third lower than the national average.
Among builders who’ve signed on for Phase One are WCI, Homes by Towne, Fox Custom Homes, Stellar Living Homes, KTS Homes, and Stock Development.
Centered around one of the lakes, the first two neighborhoods will have 700 single-family homes, 70 town home villas, and 330 condos within walking distance to the town center.
Their amenities will include community pools, barbecues areas, playgrounds fishing docks and a dog park.
“I’ll probably buy the first house,” Kitson said.
Besides meeting green-build certification guidelines, Kitson and the builders are exploring the use of sustainable building materials.
The designs themselves will feature traditional and vernacular architectures, such as craftsman, farmhouse, Spanish and colonial West Indies, to give the communities the feeling of a simpler time.
Kitson also believes there’s a growing market for smaller bungalow-sized homes with a more sustainable foundation footprint.
Not your usual offensive lineman
Tall and thin, the chairman of Kitson & Partners doesn’t look like he played four seasons with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, but he may have learned some lessons as a lineman for how the development game is played here.
Like many developers who launched projects as the Great Recession hit, he was stuck holding a big bag of debt. Fortunately he hadn’t started to build. Kitson hung on to the property – and his dream – by renegotiating his debt.
“We did a lot of things during the recession that made the project stronger,” he said.
Meanwhile he proved something of a turnaround artist, buying Talis Park. – a luxury golf community in Naples, as an unfinished project – and making it work.
No ordinary developer gets a minutes-long standing ovation for building on environmentally sensitive land, as Kitson got Friday, coinciding with Earth Day.
The first issue of the town’s newspaper, the Babcock Ranch Telegraph, was placed in his hands, hot off the press.
Dated spring, 2016, its headline read, “In the beginning.”
I am a Fort Myers native, and absolutely LOVE to call SW Florida my home. I am a wife to an amazing husband, a mother of three beautiful children, a sister of two incredible families, a daughter of v....