May 12, 2016

Kitson, FPL break ground on real community of the future

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

By Antonio Fins – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

May 11, 2016

An up-from-the-ground Florida town powered by solar energy. With self-driving transportation. And locally-grown food. Sounds like a Walt Disney community of tomorrow vision, but it’s really being built by a Palm Beach Gardens-based developer and the Sunshine State’s largest utility.

Last month, Kitson & Partners and Florida Power & Light broke ground on their cutting edge Babcock Ranch project to our west, near Punta Gorda. The property total tens of thousands of acres, but just a slice of it will be developed into a smart town of 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of retail.

The town’s grid will be powered by a 74.5 mega-watt solar field boasting, FPL said, enough solar panels to build a walkable pathway from Southwest Florida to Chicago.

“We wanted to create the first solar town in America,” said Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson. “We wanted to prove you can do it.”

At least on sunny days. At night, or under dense cloud cover, the community will draw power from natural gas-powered power plants.

But there’s more to the high-tech town than just the sunny daytime solar energy for all.

Kitson said Babcock Ranch will sport driverless transportation, walkable street layout, bike and car sharing programs, “a community vegetable garden, and a communal herb garden” and access to a preserve next door. And a diverse population — homes will start in the affordable $200,000s and run to the millions, offering everything from condos, to townhomes to single-family to mansions.

Since I’ve been a business reporter in Florida, I can’t tell you how many “communities of the future” projects and schemes I’ve heard throughout the years. To see someone break ground on one, I have to admit, is refreshing.

Certainly, the technology is there for the solar angle. And Google seems pretty advanced on its driverless car project. It’s all very New Age, yes, but doable.

“It’s really the first new town of the 21st century and it’s really a town of new technology — solar is just one part of it,” said Eric Silagy, FPL president. “There’s no doubt in my mind we will all learn from Babcock Ranch.”

And yet, like so many other future towns, Babcock Ranch could have been derailed, too. It’s a project that’s had its setbacks, not to mention the idea was hatched out in late 2007, at the dawn of the Great Recession and the real estate meltdown.

“The world had not completely come down crashing on us,” Silagy recalls. “But it was close.”

Instead, construction crews are at work, with the goal of welcoming residents next year.

“We envision this project to be a living laboratory for other projects,” said Kitson. “Our hope is that it inspire others to go out and say,’Let’s give it a try.’ Let’s give concepts like preservation and broad use of renewable energy a try.”