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May 10,2016 - 'Sustainable' Babcock Ranch becoming reality

Published: Friday, April 22, 2016 at 3:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 22, 2016 at 5:43 p.m.
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Syd Kitson says he knew his dream of a building a new city in rural Charlotte County could come true when he first saw the 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch in 2004.

After generations of stewardship, the Babcock family wanted to sell, and the Kitson & Partners development team was interested. Two years later, on July 31, 2006, the sale closed, made possible by Florida government’s $350 million purchase of 73,000 of those acres for conservation.

But the seeds of success were nurtured on Oct. 27, 1979, when Kitson took the field as an offensive lineman for the Wake Forest University football team against vaunted Auburn University.

Auburn led 38-20 at halftime. In the locker room, Wake Forest coach John Mackovic exhorted his team to “never, never, never, never, never give up.” Wake Forest held Auburn scoreless in the second half, and, behind Kitson’s blocking and the record-setting play of quarterback Jay Venuto, scored 22 points to win 42-38.

“We were down and getting beat bad, and we came back and won,” Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, said Friday. “I had never been more proud of being part of anything in my life.”

Until now.

The coach’s lesson to never give up was appropriate time and again as Kitson’s Babcock Ranch development effort faced the challenges of permitting and approvals and the crash of the real estate market after the 2006 purchase.

But Friday, the developer’s perseverance was rewarded when nearly 700 people packed a tent on the wind-swept prairie that will become Phase 1 of a new town of 17,600 acres, bigger than Lakewood Ranch at present and roughly the size of Manhattan.

Many of those in attendance were key players in making Babcock Ranch an emerging reality, including Charlotte County commissioners and state elected officials. Kitson lavished them with praise, saying he could not have done it without them.

Asked if the obstacles he faced as a developer were similar to those he met on the football field, both in college and later in the National Football League with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, Kitson replied, “Oh, yeah. This is the greatest thrill of my life, professionally. It’s No. 1.”

Sustainable community

Babcock Ranch is No. 1 in several ways, according to the development team.

It is the largest master-planned community coming out of the ground nationally at this time, and the first primarily solar-powered city. Babcock Ranch has partnered with Florida Power & Light — Kitson donated the land — in developing a 443-acre solar farm a couple of miles north of Phase 1, that, when completed, will generate 74.5 megawatts of power, or enough for 21,000 homes. When completed this year, the farm will have 330,000 photovoltaic panels in rows a quarter-mile long.

That energy will go into the grid, where Babcock Ranch’s homes and businesses can access it. At nights or on cloudy days, natural gas will be used as a supplementary energy source, fulfilling Kitson’s dream of a sustainable community. The goal is for Babcock Ranch to create more energy than it uses from the beginning. Electric bills will be 30 percent below the national average, said Eric Silagy, FPL’s president and CEO.

The mission of sustainability is why Kitson says he chose Earth Day for the “grand reveal.”

Site work on Phase 1 has been going on for several months, but Kitson chose Friday to invite the public to see how things are coming together.

“Welcome to Babcock Ranch!” he said at the podium, his hands spread wide. “I’ve been waiting 10 years to say that.”

Besides being solar-powered, Babcock Ranch’s eventual 19,500 homes and 50,000 residents will live in a neotraditional yet sustainable community that is designed to get residents away from their keyboards and touch screens and outside in the fresh air. There will be 50 miles of walking trails, and several large lakes, left over from the aggregate mining operations, for recreation.

“We want to get people outdoors,” Kitson said, noting that three childhood friends, with whom he played sandlot sports were in the audience.

“Our hometown had a huge impact on our lives. It has helped shape who we are today,” he said. “That is exactly what we are trying to capture at Babcock Ranch, that spirit.

“But at the same time, we are incorporating new technologies and innovations,” including a network of driverless cars, high-technology systems that will foster energy-efficiency and communications, as well as sustainable building practices.

“It will be future-proof,” said spokeswoman Lisa Hall.

Creating local jobs

Babcock Ranch’s site — 30 miles from Punta Gorda and 20 from Fort Myers in southern Charlotte County off State Road 31 — would appear to be a departure from the sustainability message, at least initially.

This is not intended to be The Villages, a hugely successful retirement village near Ocala. The plan calls for Babcock Ranch to have a mix of residents and a variety of housing choices at prices from $250,000 to $800,000 in the first phase.

The challenge will be to create jobs there to reduce the need to commute to the established cities.

Toward that end, Babcock Ranch will not just have rooftops in its 1,100-home first phase. A downtown district will be built at the same time, providing shops, restaurants, a health and fitness center with an urgent-care center, a market café and a K-8 charter school.

Eventually, according to plans, Babcock Ranch will have 6 million square feet of the commercial and community space found in most towns.

Tom Danahy, the former president of Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County who was hired by Kitson to become president of Babcock Ranch, is now a special adviser to Charlotte County’s town-in-embryo. He said the first group of homebuilders will include WCI Communities and Homes by Towne, which has been building at Lakewood Ranch for two decades.

“We should be marketing to everybody and have a very broad product segmentation, just like what Lakewood did,” Danahy said. “To maximize the velocity and absorption, you want to have very broad appeal.”

“We are going to have a great lineup of builders,” Kitson said. “The designs have matured” as a difficult decade passed, “but the initiatives and the vision have remained exactly the same as they were 10 years ago.

We want to honor this great place.

“Our new town is all about connections, which are key to creating a real community.”

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