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June 26,2019 - State approves funding for hurricane shelter in Babcock Ranch

Gabe Stern, Fort Myers News-Press Published 6:00 a.m. ET June 25, 2019 | ((this story was also picked up today in Politico Briefs)

 During hurricane season a few years from now, Southwest Florida residents will have another shelter they can turn to.

A part of Florida’s appropriations budget was $8 million for a new hurricane shelter at Babcock Ranch, a development straddling the Charlotte and Lee county line. The shelter will be 75,000 square feet, with a capacity for up to 2,500 evacuees.

The goal for now is to open the shelter within the next year and a half, according to Lucienne Pears, vice president of economic development at Babcock Ranch.

The shelter at Babcock Ranch will serve a “regional need” for both counties, Pears said. It rests in a developing community northeast of Fort Myers and east of Punta Gorda that’s grown since it started developing about 13 years.

“Babcock Ranch’s inland location and elevation above the reach of the storm surge is an incredible advantage when it comes to storm safety,” Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of development company Kitson & Partners, said in a press release.

The 2019-20 appropriations budget was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday, which includes $2.9 billion in funding for hurricane safety measures across the state. Both the Senate and House approved the budget in early May.

The shelter comes as many legislators and developers say there’s a deficit of hurricane shelters in Southwest Florida. Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, said that need helped get the shelter’s funding passed quickly.

“I think that people understand, at least in the Legislature and the governor’s office, that there’s a severe lack of shelters in Southwest Florida,” Rep. Michael Grant told The News-Press. “And this was one way of trying to eliminate some of that need. So once that was explained to people it made the going a little bit easier.”

Developer Babcock Ranch also agreed to provide the land and the construction of the shelter at no cost to the state as part of the agreement, totaling an estimated $7.7 million, according to the press release.

The solar-powered community rests on 17,000 acres of land, 4,157 of which are in Lee County. Purchased by Kitson & Partners in 2016, its population has grown in recent years as more and more homes are developed. It’s eventually supposed to hold 19,500 homes and six million square feet of commercial space, according to its website.

Emergency Shoulder Use is Florida’s strategy to increase traffic capacity during major hurricane evacuations using existing paved shoulders. Ginny Beagan, TCPALM

Its location makes it one of the only areas in Charlotte County that could house a hurricane shelter: far enough inland to not be in an evacuation zone, and stable enough to withstand harsh hurricane conditions.

When Richard Kinley moved with his wife from Atlanta a year and a half ago, he researched how hurricane paths and flood zones patterns affected the area and how it could withstand a hurricane. Babcock Ranch was just enough inland so that flooding wasn’t severe, he said, and the houses were built to withstand Category 3 storms. He officially moved to Babcock Ranch in January 2018, where he felt the conditions were safe.

But Kinley doesn’t anticipate that he’ll need the shelter. Neither does Pears. What will act as a regional shelter will most likely attract residents from coastal areas – namely Fort Myers and Punta Gorda – where storm conditions can be harsher and infrastructure is slightly older.

And as the outside residents trickle in, Kinley said that it could improve visibility for his community, which is still new and still developing.

Syd Kitson discusses his vision for the future Babcock community. Ricardo Rolon / news-press.com

While there are no storms to shelter from, the facility will likely act as a fieldhouse for Babcock Range, which Pears said could act as a “magnet” for the area – a sports facility that could possibly accommodate volleyball, indoor soccer, gymnastics or basketball. But as of now, developers are still planning construction dates and what the shelter will be designed to accommodate.

“We’re looking to be a full-fledged booming community with a lot of residents,” Kinley said. “So having infrastructure like the shelter and the fact that it will act as a fieldhouse too at other times – I think it’ll be another part of our community and another part of our future.”

The shelter’s development signifies a major public-private agreement between the state and newly forming community. Pears said that it’s clear now that both sides are serious about the project – something that the funding approval ultimately proved.

“The need is a public safety need and we recognize that and we want to be part of the solution in doing that,” Pears said. “We look to the state to identify this as a critically important project as well. And the approval of the budget signifies that this is a critical importance to the governor and to the Legislature, and (that) they want to partner with us.”

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