Bold plan for solar-powered Babcock Ranch development, stalled by recession, hits restart button

Syd Kitson, CEO of real estate developer Kitson & Partners, signs his name Friday on one of the 350,000 Florida Power & Light solar panels that will help power the Kitson-inspired new town of Babcock Ranch, set between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda.
Syd Kitson, CEO of real estate developer Kitson & Partners, signs his name Friday on one of the 350,000 Florida Power & Light solar panels that will help power the Kitson-inspired new town of Babcock Ranch, set between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda.
Published April 23, 2016

A bold plan to build a new town in southwest Florida designed to run on solar power — sidelined by the recession a decade ago — hit the restart button Friday morning with a celebratory event announcing Babcock Ranch is back in business.

Located between Fort Myers and Punta Gorda and east of Interstate 75, Babcock Ranch is expected to grow to 20,000 homes ranging from $250,000 to $900,000 and include a downtown with commercial space and extensive infrastructure emphasizing the ecosystem and sustainability. In sheer land size, the project has been described as 500 acres bigger than the mammoth Lakewood Ranch community in Manatee County, and more than 3,000 acres larger than Manhattan.

There are two key features. The first is a new, 75-megawatt solar facility nearby owned by Florida Power & Light that should provide enough daytime electricity to meet most, if not all, of the town's needs.

The second is the adjacent Babcock Ranch Preserve, 72,000 acres of untouched land that will remain a buffer for the town from the rapid additional development under way in this part of Florida and will serve as an invitation for residents to enjoy natural Florida.

"We think this is something never done before," said Syd Kitson, the developer and a partner of Kitson & Partners, who conceived the idea of Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County. "A town powered by solar."

Kitson was joined Friday by FPL CEO Eric Silagy and other Florida officials including Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper to showcase the planned town's emphasis on sustainability. Nearly 700 people showed up to listen.

In an interview with Kitson and Silagy, I asked if Babcock Ranch could become a prototype of new Florida communities that take more aggressive advantage of solar power and environmentally friendly design and construction.

"I hope so," Kitson said. "One of the things we are trying to be careful about is that we want to be different and great, but we do not want it to be weird." He said Babcock Ranch will feature cutting-edge infrastructure, advanced telecommunications features and even its own autonomous vehicles. But it will also focus on what people want from an aesthetic point of view.

FPL's Silagy praised Kitson for donating 400 acres of land to the power company to accommodate its solar array of 350,000 panels designed to generate 75 megawatts of electricity on sunny days. The town won't need that much power initially, since it is just getting under way, so any excess power will flow into FPL's power grid. Should the town's needs exceed the solar output, especially on cloudy days when less electricity is generated, FPL's existing service will supplement as needed. FPL's grid will also handle electricity needs at night, when there is no sunshine to power the solar facility.

Electric rates for Babcock Ranch residents and businesses will be the same as for any other customer in the utility's extensive service territory, Silagy said. (FPL historically charges lower rates than Duke Energy or Tampa Electric, the main power providers in the Tampa Bay market.)

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"If (Kitson) is successful, we may have to add more solar panels," Silagy said.

Friday's unveiling of the town-to-be came close to never happening. Kitson, a former professional football player, first conceived of a solar-driven Babcock Ranch community a decade ago, announcing a plan in 2006 for a new town with sustainable features.

Kitson and his backers bought Babcock Ranch for more than $500 million in 2006 from the heirs of Edward Vose Babcock, a former mayor of Pittsburgh. Kitson then turned around and sold the state 73,000 acres. The sale, which created the Babcock Ranch Preserve, was the state's largest land preservation deal at the time. Kitson held on to the remaining 18,000 acres or so, intending to build his new town on half of the land and leave the other 9,000 acres or so for greenways and parks.

Then the great recession hit. It would take Kitson a decade to regain the confidence in the Florida economy and consumer home buying interest to kick-start Babcock Ranch back into gear.

The revival of the town is, in part, a tale of resilience. "We never gave up on the idea," Kitson said. "It never entered my mind we would not do it." Kitson acknowledged he was lucky that his project had not yet started major investing in the town's infrastructure before the economy stalled. "It would have made it hard for us to recover," he said.

"Did I think it would take 10 years? Not at all."

Now Kitson wants Babcock Ranch not only to grow in residents but in businesses that will help provide jobs and supplement employment opportunities in nearby Fort Myers, Punta Gorda and Estero. Kitson stressed Babcock Ranch was never intended to be some kind of gated community but a new town that he hopes will attract not only baby boomers but millennials and young families. That's one reason the town's planned homes range widely in price and design, from more modest urban townhomes to spacious, upscale houses on larger lots. Construction of the project's basic infrastructure and solar array began last fall.

Babcock Ranch, said Kitson, is literally a new town with new infrastructure from the ground up. People will know exactly what they are getting, he said. "We are open for business and can get it done."

Contact Robert Trigaux at"Like" the page to see all his opinions on business news from Tampa Bay and beyond. Follow @venturetampabay.