September 27,2018 - Here comes the sun: America’s first solar town has a Pittsburgh connection
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The first U.S. solar town draws its energy from solar fields in southwest Florida and the world’s largest solar battery storage facility.

 Patricia Sheridan

Fall 2018

BABCOCK RANCH, Fla. — People aren’t the only ones soaking up the Florida sunshine. About 440 acres of solar panels are helping to power the first solar town in the United States. Former NFL player Syd Kitson is developing Babcock Ranch, a planned community with a strong Pittsburgh connection.

The land was once owned by Edward V. Babcock, a former Pittsburgh mayor who also helped establish Allegheny County’s North and South parks. The Babcock family fortune came from lumber, but these early conservationists grew as many trees as they cut on this wild tract just outside of Fort Myers in southwest Florida.

Fred Babcock, Edward’s son, expanded use of the 91,000 acres from lumber to cattle ranching, quarrying, sod farming, a nature preserve and hunting. He died in 1997 and eight years later, his heirs decided to sell to Mr. Kitson, a guard for the Green Bay Packers from 1981-84. He turned the wild space into an environmentally responsible development.

For 10 years, Kitson & Partners managed the 73,000-acre cattle ranch for the state of Florida. Now the state manages it. Mr. Kitson, the company’s CEO, proposed to conserve as much of the land as possible when he bought it in 2006. Originally planning to build on 20 percent, he later cut that to about 10 percent.

“About 9,000 of the 91,000 acres is actually being developed,” he said. “We did everything we could to make it as environmentally responsible as possible and minimize any impacts to the neighbors.”

A lover of the outdoors since he was child summering in the Adirondack Mountains, Mr. Kitson said he was determined to save natural habitat and honor the Babcock legacy. His company sold 80 percent of the acreage to the state at a discount as conservation land to maintain a wildlife corridor. It turned out to be the largest private-public real estate deal in the history of the state.

The developed areas had already been clear cut for lumber or mined for limestone, which was used for road beds.

“The quarries are now these beautiful, crystal clear lakes,” Mr. Kitson said. To keep them pristine, nothing but kayaks or electric or wind-powered water craft are allowed to use them.

“Most of the construction is in the fields that had been farmed and used for cattle raising,” he said. “There are very few wooded areas that we are actually impacting,”

In areas where woods were affected, the builders tried to preserve old growth. A live oak was transplanted from the roots and it is now a focal point of a traffic circle.

Even the traffic looks different in this solar town. The use of public transportation on a free autonomous electric vehicle is encouraged. It makes stops in all of the neighborhoods and begins and ends its rounds in the center of town. The natural landscaping includes rain gardens that catch and use rainfall.

“One hundred percent of our irrigation comes from reuse water,” said Lisa Hall, a Kitson & Partners representative. “Homeowners can have 30 percent of grass but the rest is all native plantings.”

Contractors started putting in roads more than two years ago and home sales began in November of 2017.

“We have about 170 homes sold and it is really exciting to see all these families moving in,” Mr. Kitson said.

The goal is around 19,000 homes and 50,000 residents. To avoid the town looking too homogenized or like a scene out of “The Truman Show,” there are several builders putting up a variety of home styles with many floor plans. Prices start in the high $100,000s.

“It’s not a gated community. It is a town,” he said. That means there are retirees, young families, singles and professionals.

“We are building a new school which will be K through 12,” Mr. Kitson said. “The first elementary school, which is located in Founder’s Square, they are hoping to use for pre-school child care.”

Founder’s Square is the heart of the town and will eventually be the site of condominiums. There are a few solar trees and a splash pad in the center of a grassy area that is enjoyed by younger residents. Other buildings include a visitors center called Woodlea Hall, a high school, Slater’s market, the Lee Health Center and Table & Tap, a popular farm-to-table restaurant.

At a gym in the Lee Health Center, workouts will help produce electrical energy. “It’s the first of its kind in the country,” said Ms. Hall.

“We want to promote a healthy lifestyle,” said Mr. Kitson.

Fifty miles of trails are planned and free bicycles are available for residents and visitors. A new trail was recently dedicated to Dick Cuda, Fred Babcock’s son-in-law.

Residents of this solar town won’t see smaller utility bills than other Florida residents, but their energy is probably cleaner. Power from the solar fields is fed directly to homes during the day via the FPL Solar Energy Center, a Charlotte County solar photovoltaic power plant. At night, residents draw from 10 megawatts of battery storage, “the largest solar battery storage facility in the world,” Mr. Kitson noted with pride.

“FPL is really doing a great job of using us as kind of a living laboratory for these new technologies,” he said. “If it all works out, what we are hoping is that ultimately we are off the grid completely.”

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