February 14, 2018

Inside America’s first solar-powered town – but is it a vision of the future?

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

David Millward, us correspondent, babcock ranch, florida


12 FEBRUARY 2018 • 6:00AM

By his own admission, Syd Kitson’s  50-game American football career was a modest one. He spent four years with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys before injuries took their toll.

But while sporting fame eluded him, Mr Kitson has made his mark by creating America’s first solar-powered town, Babcock Ranch in Florida, about 170 miles north west of Miami.

The first four pioneers have moved in already and others are arriving thick and fast, with the sales office doing brisk business.

In around 20 years, 50,000 people will live in the town. Many will also work there too as Mr Kitson’s vision of an ecological, self-sustaining town becomes a reality.

During the day,  power comes from 343,000 solar panels stretched out over 440 acres. At night it is supplemented by electricity from the local grid. That will change once the town develops the capacity to store the electricity the panels generate.

The panels have already met their first challenge, with none being dislodged by Hurricane Irma.

Babcock Ranch has already taken delivery of its first solar-powered driverless bus and more are due as the community tries to wean people away from depending on their cars.

Other selling points include ultra-fast internet, 50 miles of walking trails and access to 73,000 acres of unspoilt conservation land prowled by an array of wildlife including Florida panthers and black bears.

It is not only technology which makes the town unique. Its design is a throwback to the 1950s, with houses close to each other – almost obliging people to speak to their neighbours.

Gardens are small, with the bulk of the green space being communal. Post, at the moment, is not delivered to the house but to mailboxes at the bottom of the street.

The land looked very different when Mr Kitson bought it in 2006 from the Babcock family.

The Babcocks owned the ranch since 1914, with Fred trying an array of ventures to make money including limestone mining, cattle farming, ecotourism and hunting.

Mr Kitson paid around $500 million for 91,000 acres whose main inhabitants were cattle, snakes and alligators. Watermelons were a major cash crop.


As part of the deal, 73,000 acres were sold to Florida and Lee County for $350 million for use as a nature reserve, with the eco-town taking up the other 18,000 acres.

One of the scheme’s supporters was Jeb Bush, who was Florida’s governor when the deal was struck.

“The first time I came here I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the land was,” Mr Kitson said.

“The first time I drove down the road to meet the Babcock family, I was interrupted in my trip by a flock of wild turkey crossing the road and a there was a whole group of deer on my right and in front of me cattle.

“There were incredibly beautiful birds and wildlife teeming through this property.”

“I remember thinking this has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Mr Kitson, 59, is surprisingly slim for a man whose sporting career was dedicated to fending off man-mountain opponents. At six feet five inches, he cuts an imposing figure, even though he has shed much of the weight from his playing days.

“We are the third most populous state, we overtook New York. By 2030 we are going to have 26 million people living here. For us we want to prove that development, preservation environmental responsibility can all work together.

“We wanted to do this right from the very beginning and not create what was a gated golf course community, which you see here throughout the state of Florida.

“Our goal was to create a new town, a place that was a reflection of harking back to what people remember when they were growing up in their own hometowns, but with all the conveniences of modern technology that can make it very special  – and open, there are no gates here.”

Normally the social infrastructure follows the houses, but not at Babcock Ranch, where there is already a school, restaurants and a health centre and gym on the verge of opening.

Michelle Churchill, 51, has taken responsibility for co-ordinating events aimed at luring people from the surrounding area – some of whom may eventually move in.

Originally from Birmingham, she has ensured the children’s football team wear claret and blue kit – like her beloved Aston Villa.

She sees parallels with the post-war new town movement in the UK. “It’s like recreating Milton Keynes and Telford.”

Richard and Robin Kinley, both 60 originally from Atlanta were  the first to move in and one of the lakes has been named after them.

“When we came here the homes were built in the 1950s style, but with modern technology, Mr Kinley said.

“It’s an oasis of social, medical and environmental benefits. We just fell in love with the place and we signed the papers.”

\Jerry and Bethany Hunt, 36 and 30, have bought and are planning to move in with their children Peyton and Connor. “We bought here because of the technology and the school is a major plus for us.”

Currently they live up the road in Fort Myers. Other considering the move include “snowbirds” who spend the winter in Florida to avoid the ferocity of northern winters.

For the past 12 years, Bob and Joan Pierce have used a motor home in Arizona as their refuge from chilly Portland, Maine. But the Kitson vision, complete with trails and technology lured them to the sales centre.

“We love the concept. We like the lakes, the trails and the ability to walk. We have grandchildren and we are worried about what sort of future we will live them.”

When Mr Kitson embarked on the project, many were doubtful including Randy Thibaut, a local land developer.

“Five years ago it was 20 years away from being developed, then Syd had his vision and he pulled off one of the most spectacular plays I have seen in my 30 years in the real estate business.”

Mr Kitson admits it was a gamble, but one which looks as if it will pay off.

“When people do anything which is brave and bold, people question their sanity, I take some pride in that.”