March 22, 2019

Running on the sun

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Girl playing on the grass
Running on the sun
As environmental calamities rock Florida’s coast, an inland community seeks to live in harmony with nature.
Kaia Freeman, 4, chases after her brother Jordan, 13, in Founder’s Square in Babcock Ranch. The 18,000-acre development is billed as the nation’s first solar-powered town. (Photos by Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)
By Janine Zeitlin
MARCH 21, 2019

BABCOCK RANCH, Fla. — The autonomous shuttle was parked for the night, but the town square was otherwise hopping. Kids in tie-dyed shirts cartwheeled on a lawn that has a pair of solar trees — free solar charging stations curved into massive green stems. Parents slipped off their shoes and admired the peach-hued southwest Florida sunset over the 300-acre lake. A singer strummed beneath an oak tree at the farm-to-table restaurant.

The Friday scene at this community, billed as the nation’s first solar-powered town, unfolded like a director’s take on an eco-utopia.

“It really is like a TV show, like Andy Griffith,” said Kara Fales, 36, in an #boymom shirt, as she and her sons, ages 5, 2, and 1, ate near the square. She and her husband, who manages restaurants, moved here in December, joining families drawn by nature, the promise of sustainable living and the A-rated charter school.

Climate change has been linked to Florida’s most recent environmental disasters. In the summer, the strongest red tide in more than a decade drove away tourists and killed hundreds of sea turtles, manatees and dolphins on the Gulf Coast. Millions of pounds of fish and wildlife piled up on world-renowned beaches. Algae choked waterways. Hurricanes, which grow stronger with warm water, remain a constant threat.

In a state whose government is known for lax pollution controls and an aversion to even mentioning climate change, Babcock Ranch is a groundbreaking concept that residents say they hope will catch on in other parts of Florida.

Developers and residents say they think inland communities like Babcock Ranch will be the wave of the future, as hurricanes and rising sea levels

a woman selecting vegetables outside of slaters goods
Fina Marcone looks over produce for sale outside of Slater’s Goods & Provisions in Babcock Ranch. The produce was grown in the community. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)
Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre community rising from cattle land and wildlife habitat, welcomed its first residents in January 2018. The population has since swelled to nearly 400, including the first baby born at Babcock — a home birth. Eight builders signed on to construct houses with prices ranging from the $200,000s to more than $1 million. Houses must receive at least a bronze rating from the Florida Green Building Coalition.

At build-out, projected to be in about 20 years, the town could surpass 50,000.

a mother and two children play on the shore of lake babcock
The Fales family plays on the shores of Lake Babcock. Half of the community’s 18,000 acres are reserved for lakes and green space, including 50 miles of public trails. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)
Fales and her family relocated from suburban Fort Myers, the closest metropolitan area, about 15 miles west. They chose a five-bedroom, roughly $420,000 house.

Neighbors offer to babysit and leave “mommy cocktails” on the porch. Homes are designed to create community. “It’s even better than we could have imagined,” Fales said. “My friends joke that it is the Babcock cult.”

Atypical development

Babcock Ranch sits amid open fields off a two-lane country road, across from a horse rescue and not far from a feed store. The entrance lacks the gate, palm tree cavalry and exotic flowers typical to Florida communities.

Native grasses, pine trees, lakes and marshes border the road leading to Founder’s Square, where developer Kitson & Partners crafted an idealized town with an ice cream shop, an outdoors outfitter, a high-end market complete with an olive oil bar, and a co-working space. A wellness center with a family clinic opened last spring.

Babcock visionary Syd Kitson said the entry sequence was designed to tell Babcock’s story of sustainability. Land preservation was an early chapter.

brown cattle graze

Cattle graze in an open field on the same road as Babcock Ranch. The community sits across from a horse rescue and not far from a feed store. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)
In 2006, Kitson & Partners bought the 91,000-acre ranch from the Babcock family. The company then resold 73,000 acres for $350 million to state and local governments, in what’s considered among the single-largest land conservation deals in state history. The preserve provides habitat to imperiled species such as the endangered Florida panther.

Not every environmentalist was elated, but Kitson won over key groups. Other developers proposed a sprawl of individually owned “ranchettes,” Kitson said.

The town was planned on 18,000 acres already affected by pastures, rock mining and farming, according to the developer. Half is reserved for lakes and green space, including 50 miles of public trails.

Sustainable development has not been South Florida’s forte: for example, the early 20th-century attempts to drain the Everglades. But the need for resilient development feels urgent with the onslaught of environmental disasters, perhaps intensified by climate change.

builders work on construction of a homeconstruction

 view of a road being paved with palm trees freshly planted

LEFT: Construction workers build homes. Eight builders signed on to construct houses with prices ranging from the $200,000s to more than $1 million. Houses must receive at least a bronze rating from the Florida Green Building Coalition. RIGHT: Newly planted palm trees. Developers and residents say they think inland communities like Babcock Ranch will be the wave of the future, as hurricanes and rising sea levels drive more people away from Florida’s coastal areas.

This past summer, southwest Florida residents blamed runoff pollution from development as a factor fueling red tide and toxic algae that rendered beaches and waterways unusable for weeks. Millions of pounds of dead sea life piled up on Gulf of Mexico beaches about 30 miles west from Babcock. (Waters have since cleared.)

Florida might be in the nascent stages of better managing such disasters. In his first week in office, the state’s new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, announced a $2.5 billion plan for water and Everglades protections, pledging stronger environmental enforcement and to establish a resiliency office.

Bethany Hunt and her husband, Jerry, tested their new boat in June during the summer water crisis. They left from a dock near Babcock on the Caloosahatchee River, which leads to the gulf. By then, the Fort Myers residents had signed for a three-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot house in Babcock and were eager to send their children, 9 and 6, to the environmentally focused school.

They steered the boat into thick green algal slime. “It was horrible,” said Bethany Hunt, 31. “That is what made us feel like we absolutely made the right decision and to be a part of the right decisions being made.”

Hurricane resiliency is another selling point. “We do have people moving off the coast and coming to Babcock,” Kitson said.

Babcock building requirements dictate storm shutters or impact glass and construction that withstands at least 145 mile-per-hour winds, higher than state codes for the area. Babcock sits beyond the storm surge at about 30 feet above sea level, Kitson said. “In Florida, that’s a virtual mountain.”

Richard Kinley checked hurricane tracks for the past century and projected sea level rise before moving to bucolic Babcock from traffic-snarled Atlanta. He reviewed flood insurance maps. “Where we live is a .2 percent annual chance of flooding,” he said.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma churned over Babcock as a Category 2, as Kinley’s $523,000, two-bedroom, 2,300-square-foot house was being built. There was no damage, he said. Babcock reported a few downed trees and two solar panels needing repairs.

Kinley and his wife, Robin, both 61, were the first Babcock residents. She is a professional quilter; he is semi-retired from a medical device company.

Since their arrival, the Babcock vision has sharpened into focus. Kitson has sold more than 2,000 lots to builders. More than 150 homes are occupied, with about the same number under contract. About 80 percent of buyers are from Florida, Kitson said.

In the fall, Babcock earned platinum, the highest, designation from the Florida Green Building Coalition, for development strategies around solar energy, tree preservation, water efficiency, and native plant and sustainable material usage.

“Our whole thesis is that when Florida continues to grow, we need to do it in a sustainable way,” Kitson said. “Babcock is proving people want it and that it’s really desirable.”

A reduced footprint

Babcock Ranch is not the sole green-certified development in Florida. The Florida Green Building Coalition has certified 14, including Babcock, since 2003.

Each year, more Florida communities are responding to climate-related concerns by updating building standards and sustainability or disaster mitigation plans, said C.J. Davila, executive director of the Florida Green Building Coalition.

Babcock has the potential to sway developers toward preservation as they look inland to accommodate the 100,000-plus new residents migrating to Florida each year.

“Developers are trying to find land at all costs,” Davila said, and some are asking, “How can we buy a piece of land and work with preservation while we also build a community?”

What makes Babcock Ranch unique, Davila said, is the amount of land preserved and its solar commitment. Town buildings have solar panels; homeowners can choose to add them. (One homeowner said his 21 panels cost about $16,000.)

The real engine is the solar field north of the town center, down a road sometimes blocked by foraging wood storks and herons. There, poised to capture enough energy to power about 15,000 homes, tilt 340,000 low-to-the-ground solar panels.

solar field setup

The Babcock Ranch FPL Solar Energy Center. The solar panels sit on 440 acres and provide energy to the community. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)
Kitson donated the land, 440 acres, to Florida Power & Light (FPL), and the solar center opened in 2016.

“When the sun is shining, folks are getting emissions-free energy,” said Alys Daly, FPL spokeswoman. “We can’t say exactly where electrons go, but they’re going to Babcock Ranch and beyond.”

The energy flows into the grid and goes toward reducing costs for FPL’s millions of customers. There is no direct utility bill reduction to Babcock residents because of it. Residents are billed at the same rates as other FPL customers.

Essentially, the benefit for Babcock residents is ideological rather than financial. The solar produced at the center exceeds the town’s energy footprint.

Since opening the Babcock site, Florida Power & Light has constructed about a dozen large solar centers elsewhere, Daly said. “That really was the beginning of this solar energy expansion across the state.”

a band plays in the yard at table and tap
The band Jaggard plays for visitors and residents at the Table & Tap farm-to-table restaurant. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)

Not a walkable town

A slice of moon rose one early February evening. Telescopes pointed to the Orion Nebula. On the Babcock calendar: a booked-out night sky viewing and electric boat cruise.

“Where do you live?” an employee asked Richard Kinley.

“Babcock,” Kinley said. “I already drank the Kool-Aid.”

make america green again bumper sticker

A Sierra Club bumper sticker seen in Babcock Ranch. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)
Last year at that time, Babcock Ranch was the Kinleys and another couple. Kinley could joke with his wife that a quarter of the town was hungry. The months brought friends. “We’ve entertained here and been entertained more than 20 years in Atlanta,” he said.

Complaints about Babcock don’t come easily. When pressed, a few residents offer mild grousing about drives to stores, a high school, appointments and outside culture. A Zip code or post office would be nice. Some non-Babcock residents worry about traffic on the road leading to it. A state study to widen portions is in the works.

Babcock has drawn some social media shade with an announced 18-hole golf course community. The course must meet green building standards, Kitson said. “The fact that we have a golf course is not contrary to who we are,” he said.

Richard Kinley said he feels indifferent about the golf. Driving beyond Babcock isn’t a bother.

“If I had to choose between having a lot of stores nearby and nature, I’d much rather choose the nature,” he said. “I wanted to move somewhere where I’d be happy the rest of my life, and I thought this was the place, and so far it’s turned out to be true.”

Credits: Janine Zeitlin