August 11,2014 - August 11, 2014 – Syd Kitson Tries to Seize Power in Babcock Ranch
CHARLOTTE COUNTY – For nearly a decade, Syd Kitson has touted plans for a first-of-its-kind city powered solely by energy from the sun.
Now, the real estate developer and former NFL offensive lineman says that for his ambitious vision to become a reality, he must be allowed to set up his own power utility at his planned development, Babcock Ranch.
But Kitson’s request to state officials has been challenged by the Lee County Electric Cooperative, which had been slated to sell power in the area.
The cooperative’s objections are the latest roadblock to Kitson’s efforts to build 19,500 homes and roughly 6 million square feet of office and retail space on rural cattle farms.
“This is something we always had in the back of our minds,” Kitson said. “At this point, we just realized it was the best way to move forward.”
Kitson made national headlines in 2006 with his purchase of the 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch, which is bordered by eastern Charlotte and Lee counties.
Once owned by former Pittsburgh Mayor Edward Babcock, the land for decades had been used for cattle ranches and has been a popular spot for Florida hunters and wildlife watchers.
News reports at the time said Kitson and investors spent nearly $500 million to acquire the property, though he has declined to disclose terms of the deal.
Kitson immediately sold 74,000 acres of the ranch to the state for $350 million — Florida’s single-largest land deal in its history — for a preserve that can never be developed.
Though the Great Recession stalled his plans, today Kitson has permits in hand to build on the remaining land. Plans call for enough homes for 50,000 residents and a commercial village complete with hotels, retail stores and offices.
But the heart of the golf-course community would be a 75-megawatt solar farm. Plans show solar panels blanketing rooftops of condo towers and commercial buildings throughout the community.
“It’s essentially the backbone of what we want to do,” Kitson said.
Kitson and his development team now say creating an electric utility to serve Babcock Ranch would expedite the overall vision for the ranch.
In 2007, Florida lawmakers created a special district that Kitson says allows Babcock Ranch to apply to generate power through a municipal utility.
At the time, the Babcock Ranch Community Independent Special District was just the second of its kind in Florida, joining the Reedy Creek Improvement District created more than five decades ago to support Walt Disney World.
In March, Kitson filed a 49-page application with the state’s Public Service Commission to generate power in Charlotte County.
In applying, Kitson’s Palm Beach-based development firm said the proposed utility would provide additional control over planning and construction, result in lower electric bills for customers and residents and fit in with the planned 75-megawatt solar farm.
“We want to provide the most environmentally sustainable source of electricity,” said Kitson, whose team already controls the rights to provide water and sewer service at Babcock Ranch.
But the Lee County Electric Cooperative isn’t convinced. It’s challenging the developer’s interpretation of the 2007 measure, claiming the 7-year-old agreement doesn’t allow Kitson to create a utility. The cooperative also said that relinquishing control to Babcock Ranch would lead to lost revenues and higher rates for its members.
“While we support Babcock’s plans out there — we think the theory is good — we have a responsibility to our customers to keep their best interest in mind,” said Karen Ryan, spokeswoman for the Lee County Electric Cooperative.
“That is part of our territory at this time. There is a value to the rights to serve that area. That’s our concern.
“There’s going to be homes and businesses out there and, over time, that represents potential revenue for us,” she said.
Both sides are arguing their case through filings with the Florida Public Service Commission, which will have to decide the issue without recent precedent to go by.
Officials say the agency’s ruling ultimately could have widespread ramifications on how electricity is provided to remote developments in the future.
The challenge has been frozen twice, at the request of Babcock Ranch, to give Kitson’s team and Lee County cooperative officials time to negotiate a potential settlement. Both agree a deal would be the best option.
Florida Power & Light, which sells Lee County cooperative all its power wholesale, also has the right to serve a fraction of Babcock Ranch land directly, and would supply some electricity to either Kitson or the cooperative. FPL also also would likely partner with Kitson to build the primary solar farm on the ranch.
But for now, FPL staying out of the Lee County-Kitson discussions.
“We would like to work with the district and co-op to find a mutual agreement,” FPL spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood said. “We just want to come to a resolution that’s acceptable for everyone.”
Lawmakers involved in the 2007 utility measure said their intent was clear.
Former state Sen. Mike Bennett, who helped steer the measure through the Florida Legislature, said he would testify before the PSC on behalf of Babcock Ranch’s developers if called upon.
“When we passed that piece of legislation, the idea was that this would be the most environmentally sustainable community in all of the country,” said Bennett, who is now Manatee County’s Supervisor of Elections.
“We all knew up front that Babcock was going to create their own electricity and be their own co-op. That was clear in everyone’s minds. There should be no disputes over that whatsoever.”
If he is allowed to move forward with plans for the electric utility, Kitson said he could begin work on water and sewer lines and roads by early next year. The first crop of homes to be built at Babcock Ranch would follow 18 months later.
But the overall vision remains a long-term one.
Kitson estimates that his new solar city could take upwards of $2 billion — and two decades — to complete.
“The Legislature gave us that right (to create a utility), and it’s not one granted lightly,” Kitson said. “Our goal is to provide the best service at the best price, and that’s what we’re working for.”
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