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April 13,2018 - Babcock Ranch future in Lee: ‘We’re working on it’
News-Press

Casey Logan, CLOGAN@NEWS-PRESS.COMPublished 8:45 a.m. ET April 2, 2018

Babcock Neighborhood School is filled to capacity and has attracted a high percentage of Lee County students. Parents says they signed their kids up for the school because of the green, STEAM curriculum. Andrea Melendez/news-press.com

Babcock Ranch, Southwest Florida’s emerging solar city, attracted lots of attention during tourist season.

As spring turns to summer and time goes on, a burning question for Lee County residents: What might the future hold as the town starts its southward expansion in the coming years?

The short answer is it’s too early to state precisely, said Syd Kitson, CEO of developer Kitson & Partners, who spoke to The News-Press last week and after a key hearing in February.

“We’re just not quite there yet,” he said Thursday. “We just haven’t solidified the land plan itself and the uses we hope to put there, but we’re working on it now and hope to have something in the relatively near future.”

Beyond getting that plan hammered out, there will be work to get sites in Lee prepared, and for the market to reach a point where it’s ready.

“We still need to bring utilities and other infrastructure down to Lee County to be able to do anything there,” Kitson said. “We still have a lot of work to do before we can put a shovel in the ground in Lee.”

The Babcock Ranch development is 17,800 acres in all, with 4,157 acres in Lee. As a comparison, the Gateway community in Lee County is about 3,800 acres. The Lee County portion of Babcock is bounded by State Road 31, North River Road and the county line.

In January, the first residents moved into the town, which is expected to have 19,500 homes and 50,000 residents in 20 to 25 years.

Babcock Ranch crossed a major hurdle in February when it secured the approval from Lee County commissioners that paves the way for its future development to the south.

Babcock Ranch development plan for Lee approved

That set broad parameters for what to expect: up to 1,630 dwelling units, up to 1.2 million square feet of nonresidential space and up to 600 hotel rooms, with max building heights at 65 feet.

While it sets the stage for tangible work to begin, Kitson said observers need only look to what’s happening in Charlotte to glimpse what is anticipated in Lee.

“I think people can expect to drive into what they see today and a continuation of exactly what we’re doing right now,” he said in February. “The parks, the trails, the walkability, the schools. This is what people should anticipate. This is a living, breathing example of what they can expect in Lee County.”

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While the county line may cause more work for the developer, because it has to satisfy two counties, it’s still one town with the same environmental approach.

“That includes the native plant materials, minimum of grassed areas, only impacting those areas that have been cleared, not building in the wetlands,” he said. “That is exactly what they can anticipate.”

More details, Kitson said, will simply take time.

“Anticipate us coming in with site plans and more specificity on what we’re going to do there,” he said. “Over the course of the next couple of years seeing those approvals to be able to start the neighborhoods that we want to build in Lee County.”

With season essentially in the rear-view, Kitson said summer will allow for a bit of a breather, but there’s still much more to come.

“There are a few more builders we plan to introduce to the community, and new product types,” he said. “Could not be happier with the season and the sales. We’re very happy with where we are.”

Quinn Hoban, 6, of Jupiter, Florida, looks over some information on the viewing platform at the Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center. (Photo: Casey Logan/The News-Press)

Market experts said it’s too early to say specifically what will be built in Lee, even speculatively.

Gary Tasman, a commercial real estate expert and broker with Cushman & Wakefield, thinks the pace of home sales will be a key driver for what Babcock might do in Lee, and how quickly.

The short answer is it’s too early to state precisely, said Syd Kitson, CEO of developer Kitson & Partners, who spoke to The News-Press last week and after a key hearing in February.

“The residential absorption is going to drive the commercial,” he said. “Once we can understand the scale of the absorption in Charlotte County, then we can estimate what might happen in Lee County.”

Lisa Hall, a spokeswoman for Babcock Ranch, said Thursday that the town has sold 100 homes.

“There are a lot of young families among the Lennar buyers, and they are on track for having first residents moving into the Trail’s Edge neighborhood in May — and we are on track in terms of our goal of being a real, multigenerational hometown,” she wrote.

Indeed, a touchstone occurred last year, experts agree, when national builders Lennar and Pulte Homes came in as building partners, joining the town’s growing fleet of developers.

Babcock Ranch, the solar town, ramps up in 2018

While Tasman foresees success in the long term, he thinks Babcock must still identify more precisely what it wants to be, which will be determined by demographics.

Some of that is driven by price points. Homes there start in the $190s, but many developers there are building in the mid to high six-figures.

Lennar and Pulte are expected to offer homes on the lower end of the Babcock spectrum, which could help to attract families and others looking for more affordable options.

“They haven’t really identified the exact demographic profile of the homeowner there,” Tasman said. “Is it seasonal, young family, older? They need to fill a couple of neighborhoods up with young families, then a neighborhood of retirees, then they’ll see the market of where they want to be.”

Randy Thibaut, land sales and development expert and owner and founder of Land Solutions, addressed Babcock Ranch at The News-Press Market Watch event at Germain Arena in February.

“I’m a believer,” he said. “The real game changer was when I saw Lennar and Pulte Homes jumped into this project.”

Babcock Ranch has proven there is demand for housing in that area, Thibaut said, calling residential and commercial growth to the east and north inevitable in the decades to come.

“The addition of the national home builders — Pulte and Lennar — is critical to put them on the map for larger volumes of sales there over the years,” he said. “The residential rooftops will come first and then commercial will follow. Kudos for them taking the pioneering steps.”


A sign welcomes visitors to the viewing platform at the Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center. (Photo: Casey Logan/The News-Press)

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