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July 31,2018 - Online "Saturday Magazine" Babcock Ranch is Powered by the Sun

by Lucy Tobias

While growing up, my passions ebbed and flowed – in second grade, horses galloped across my landscape always with me riding out front. By fourth grade being a ballerina took center stage.

Did you dream dreams as a kid of what you’d like to be grown up? Yep. Thought so.

But even in my wildest imaginings I never envisioned the audacity or the sheer magnitude of building a town from the ground up.

And now I’ve encountered just such a town. Following a recent visit to Babcock Ranch I interviewed Syd Kitson, Chairman and CEO of Kitson and Partners.

You guessed it – Babcock Ranch, located near Fort Myers in Southwest Florida, includes a town being built from the ground up by Kitson and Partners, with offices in Palm Beach Gardens and Fort Myers.

Babcock Ranch is the first solar-powered town in the US

“I’ve never built a town before. This is special. It is one of those once in a lifetime things, “ said Kitson who started as a builder/developer in 1986. Kitson noted: “This is also the first solar-powered town in the United States. Florida Power and Light is using Babcock Ranch as a living laboratory.”

The young town is powered by solar power during the day and natural gas at night. FPL has 340,000 photovoltaic panels on a 440-acre site – enough power for Babcock Ranch and other FPL customers. Pretty amazing. There is a three-story high viewing tower so visitors can be awed by the scope of this project.

Owned since the 1800s by different families, Babcock Ranch, 91,000 acres, went up for sale in the late 1990’s. Bidding was intense. The state wanted large chunks for preservation. Developers eyed the property for future communities and were prepared to offer more than full price in cash.

The Babcock family hoped to keep the rock mining and cattle business, and all the employees, as part of the sale. Kitson and Partners were given a year to come up with a deal to buy everything including the cattle.

This process was a bit of a nail-biter but on July 31, 2006 the deal was done. Kitson and Partners then sold 73,000 acres to the state. It was the largest preservation deal in Florida history. And 18,000 acres encompass the town’s footprint within the preserve.

“This town is a labor of love,” said Kitson adding the top principle is conservation, followed by building the most sustainable and environmentally responsible town possible and the most innovative.

Kitson has a simple rule of thumb:

“I want people to live in that healthy life – you live longer.”

During the downturn in 2008 environmental work was done. Then, finally, came infrastructure – a primary school, filled the first day with 158 students from Lee and Charlotte counties, a welcome center, restaurants, town center, store.

The town is actually happening, rising from the ground, surrounded forever by preserved land.

Having a shuttle ride around the first neighborhoods being built was an eye- opener. Every neighborhood will have green space, a kid’s playground, room a vegetable garden complete with rainbarrels while all landscaping water uses recycled water. Houses have front porches. Five miles of lovely, wide trail already exists, eventually there will 50 miles.

In a lovely bit of recycling, 140 trees so far, large oaks, have been successfully moved from other parts of the property to use as landscaping for homes under construction, over 200 homes at present. The first community garden for those homes is getting heavy use.

Lisa Hall, Public Relations, retells the very first homeowners sitting down for closing. “The room was crowded. They were all sitting around so excited but very quiet. When the papers were finally all signed, they cheered. That is when they found out the were the first homeowners.”

Robin and Richard Kinley, first residents of Babcock Ranch, moved in the first week of January 2018.

“I love riding my bike every day, going to get mail, ice cream, go to lunch but lately in the heat I’ve been slipping over to the pool, Robin said. “It is very quiet. We like it. We came from a hectic city – Atlanta. Here the skies are dark, lots of stargazing, lots of wildlife.”

Robin added: “Florida has gated communities. This one is open. The message is ‘come and enjoy’.”

Indeed. Babcock Ranch is a great day trip destination.

Babcock Ranch perfect for day-tripping discoveries

For a good overview, start at the Discovery Center inside Woodlea Hall, 42850 Crescent Loop, Babcock Ranch. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Phone: 941-257-4936.

And I can attest from my visit that a meal at Table & Tap should definitely be on your menu when you visit. We did lunch. I’d come back for dinner anytime.

What else is there to do? Well, explore Sunset Trail (five miles so far). Walk or ride a bike. No bike? Check in at Curry Creek Outfitters inside Woodlea Hall at Founder’s Square to sign on for the app that opens up bikes available at trailheads.

Curry Creek are also the ones to see about kayak and canoe rentals. Their hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10-5, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Mondays. Phone: 941-467-1485.

Take an electric boat tour, a free ½ hour ride on Lake Babcock, given at noon and 2 p.m. For reservations call 941-467-1486.

Bring your best four-legged friend, or friends, and visit their first dog park. There will be more dog parks in the future. Tour the solar panel facility.

As you drive along the property notice that all edges are left natural, native, thus requiring less water to maintain.

Oh, and just so you know, Robin says the sunsets are incredible.

You are invited

Sea Aster Press is pleased to announce the first book signing for Circle the Center Labyrinths in Florida by Lucy Tobias.

You are invited to Midtown Reader, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 1, 2018. The address is 1123 Thomasville Road,Tallahassee. Refreshments will be served.

Future book signings and locations will be posted here.