January 10, 2022

COLUMN: Babcock Ranch our second city some day?

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Go south on State Road 31 in east Charlotte County, and you will happen upon a very new community in our county called Babcock Ranch. This community is located on about 17,700 acres, and, instead of growing like Topsy, it has been a community planned from the outset.

Apparently, the plan is quite attractive, if population growth is any measure. In January, 2018, the number of residents was about 250. By January, 2021, population was about 3,500, representing about a 240% growth rate per year. Expectations for January, 2023, are for more than 7,500 residents.

Demographically, the numbers are quite different than Charlotte County as a whole. Half of the households are families with children, only 17% of the residents are snowbirds, 74% of the residents have college degrees, and 70% have family incomes at $100,000 or more. So in general, Babcock Ranch is not the usual retirement community, and is bringing younger, talented people to our workforce. Trust this to also attract business to our county.

Babcock Ranch built its own school, and got a charter approved for it, so it operates as a charter school, which means that it need not adhere to the curriculum offered in our public schools. I had the privilege of interviewing Shannon Treece, their principal, about three years ago, and found that she had adopted a project-based curriculum. That sort of curriculum goes beyond classroom instruction, and challenges students, either individually or in teams, to undertake substantial tasks, in which they are responsible for organizing themselves, defining the work stream, and then working together to obtain the goal. Graduates of such a curriculum will be much better prepared to manage themselves in college, or to handle the responsibilities of their initial employment. The school began as K – 6, with 151 students, and is now K – 10, with 577 students, of whom 24% are from Lee County.

As Babcock Ranch grows, so do the ad valorem contributions to Charlotte County’s budget, so far totaling about $5.7 million. Of course, there will need to be some county investment as time goes by.

So far, the interim sheriff and EMS stations, and the school have all been built by Babcock Ranch, avoiding county expense. Of course, the county staffs these facilities, and pays the salaries and operating expenses. As to the charter school, all charter schools in the state (which must be nonprofit), receive a per capita payment from the county school district which is somewhat less than the public schools receive. Babcock Ranch also maintains its own water and sewage treatment facilities, independent of Charlotte County Utilities.

In addition to the “must have” facilities mentioned above, There are two public trailheads leading to 15 miles of trails, Jack Peeples Recreational Park, a dog park, fishing pier, and playgrounds.

With expansion comes needs. One concern is S.R. 31, the primary access road to the area, which is at this point a two-lane road well known for its accident rate. A portion of that road will be widened, from State Road 88 in Lee County to Lake Babcock Drive in Charlotte County. That of course, does not burden Charlotte County, since it is a state road.

As to currently planned expansion, there are a number of facilities still to come. A high school is underway, and there will be a permanent sheriff’s facility, several fire stations, and a library. These again will be built by Babcock Ranch.

No article about Babcock Ranch would be complete without discussing its large commitment to solar electricity. It has 870 acres of solar panels, with a peak capacity of 150 MW output under direct overhead sunlight. That would be sufficient to handle about 30,000 residences at Florida rates of domestic power consumption. Of course, it does not operate at night, but it has four hours backup capacity for the current community size.

At present, Punta Gorda is the only incorporated city in Charlotte County, with a population of 21,000. With the large growth rate we see in Babcock Ranch, and the fact that their physical plant regarding public services is effectively owned by the community, I would expect that by 2130, they will very likely have incorporated to become this county’s second city.