June 21, 2017

Smart development, eco-tourism make for happy neighbors in Punta Gorda, Florida

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

A solar-powered town on the sleepy Gulf Coast attracts its first residents.


Matt Hickman 


June 20, 2017, 4:35 p.m.


Florida’s Gulf Coast is a weirdly dissociated place.

True, there’s a cohesiveness to it all, mainly in that the Gulf Coast is more laid-back and less preoccupied with appearances than Florida’s Atlantic Coast. It clings to the vestiges of Old Florida a bit tighter. Yet this cohesiveness begins to crack and the distinct personalities of each Gulf Coast sub-region emerge depending on where you veer off Interstate 75.

Much of this can be credited to Florida’s ages-old knack for self-promotion — after all, tourism is the Sunshine State’s top industry. Each individual “coast” boasts its own allure, its own socio-cultural identity.

Looking for something a touch more urbane — art galleries, opera and the like? Get thee to the Cultural Coast (Sarasota County). Are sprawling white sand beaches, no matter how mobbed, your top priority? The Sun Coast (the Tampa Bay Area) beckons. In search of an upscale boomer Xanadu? The Paradise Coast (Naples/Marco Island) awaits. Don’t mind smaller crowds and bigger mosquito bites? The Nature Coast (Citrus, Levy, Pasco, Hernando, Dixie and Wakulla counties) is your best bet.

Located roughly equidistance between Fort Myers and Sarasota, Charlotte County, which includes the small city of Punta Gorda along with the communities of Englewood and Port Charlotte, is trickier to pin down.

Charlotte County is an often overlooked misfit, really, borrowing bits from the above vernacular coastal regions to form its own identity. Compared to Charlotte County’s neighbors to the north and south, it’s an unassuming destination where the biggest draws are its relative lack of big draws. Friendly and low-key, it doesn’t need to showboat and tout its natural beauty.

If anything, you could say that Charlotte County plays the role of “Sustainable Coast” — not the sexiest moniker, but it works.

With Punta Gorda serving as a base camp of sorts, visitors come for the intimate, unspoiled beaches of Manasota Key; a handful of scenic state parks; nearly a dozen birder-friendly conservation preserves and environmental parks; and miles of aquatic wilderness best explored by paddleboard or kayak along Charlotte County’s Blueway Trails. Eva and Chris Worden’s eponymous 85-acre organic farm and CSA program along with TEAM Punta Gorda, a volunteer-run organization focused on building out Punta Gorda’s bicycling infrastructure and promoting community gardening efforts, are just two local enterprises helping to veer residents of Charlotte County down a more sustainable path.

Yet Charlotte County’s newest eco-asset offers a drastic departure from the norm.

It revolves around the built environment, specifically a mixed-use development complete with ultra-efficient homes and a utility-scale in-house solar power plant. Named Babcock Ranch, this 18,000-acre utopia-in-the-making was borne from the largest conservation land acquisition in Florida history and is poised to put sleepy Charlotte County on the map in a big way.

Historic cattle ranch meets 21st-century solar farm

Traveling by car away from the bayside parks and bustling marina scene of Punta Gorda and toward Babcock Ranch, it quickly becomes clear that to reach Florida’s one-and-only solar-powered Shangri-La, you must drive straight through the desolate hinterlands of Charlotte County first.

Flanked on one side by Florida’s oldest wildlife management area, Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area, on one side and a smattering of mining operations, ranches and farms on the other, the drive along Bermont Road is as straight-up rural as rural county roads in Florida get: flat, straight and dominated by 18-wheelers moving at impossibly fast speeds.

Turning south onto State Route 31 toward the Caloosahatchee River through the heart of the nearly 81,000-acre wildlife management area, the ranches and farms give way to dense stands of slash pine and wide-open expanses of nothingness.

And then, after driving several miles deeper into the protected inland wilderness of peninsular Florida, you see it. Is it a mirage?

Or are those really 300,000 photovoltaic panels lining a field off to the east?

With a total capacity of 74.5 megawatts, Florida Power and Light (FPL)’s $300 million Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center acts as both the functional and spiritual heart of the self-described “eco-centric new town embedded in nature and powered by the sun, by innovation and by the great outdoors” that’s rising just a few miles further south down Route 31.

Online since January 2017, the 440-acre solar power plant provides Babcock Ranch with all of its energy needs and then some; any excess juice flows back into main power grid providing a renewable source of energy to other FPL customers.

In fact, Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center is one of three large-scale solar farms erected by FPL in 2016 alone. Collectively equipped with a million PV panels, these three facilities aim to more than triple the utility’s overall solar capacity with 225 additional megawatts — that’s enough to power the homes of over 45,000 customers.

Home to so many solar panels that, if placed end to end, they’d stretch all the way from Punta Gorda to Chicago, the Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center differs from other FLP solar energy centers in that it’s part of a unique public-private partnership between the utility and Kitson & Partners, a Palm Beach Gardens, Florida-based real estate development firm better known for supermarket-anchored shopping centers than solar-powered towns.

Kitson & Partners entered the picture in 2006 when the firm purchased historic Babcock Ranch from the descendants of Edward Vose Babcock, a Pittsburgh lumber baron who bought the sprawling tract, then known as the Crescent B Ranch, in 1914.

After failing to acquire the 91,000-acre property in its entirety from the Babcock family in the late 1990s, the state of Florida promptly purchased 73,000 acres of Babcock Ranch from Kitson & Partners — price tag: $350 million — as part of a historic transaction that Gov. Jeb Bush claimed “would preserve the largest track of contiguous land in the states history.”

In addition to earmarking 18,000 acres for a self-contained mini-city that will eventually be home to a mix of 19,500 single- and multi-family housing units, Kitson & Partners donated the land where the FLP solar facility now stands.

Under state protection, numerous businesses established by the Babcock family over the years remain including rock mining, sod farming, beekeeping and traditional Cracker cattle ranching. Babcock Ranch Eco Tours, an old Florida-style tourist diversion in which guests are ferried through pine forests, prairies, marshes, cypress swamps and the working heart of the historic Crescent B Ranch from the comfort of a naturalist-commandeered “swamp buggy” is also still open for business.

As Lisa Hall, a spokesperson for Kitson & Partners, notes, the ambitious project “isn’t just preserving land but preserving the Florida way of life.”

If you build it they will come (even after a 10-year delay)

It may seem odd that one of the country’s most ambitious examples of smart development can be found just down the road from a paid attraction that involves traversing an alligator-infested pond aboard a retired school bus done up in a camo paint job.

In Punta Gorda, however, it makes perfect sense.

The fact that those two disparate destinations — a rustic wildlife tour and a solar-powered eco-town — are located adjacent to each other along the same lonely stretch of Florida highway perfectly encapsulates how this frequently overlooked corner of the Gulf Coast is embracing a smarter and more sustainable future while also preserving the past.

The close proximity of Babcock Ranch’s new and old elements also makes for a rather tidy arrangement, tourism-wise. Visitors who venture to rural inland Charlotte County specifically to embark on a 90-minute Babcock Ranch tour now have another nearby destination to check out — and they needn’t necessarily be shopping for a new home. (Home sales kicked off at Babcock Ranch in January.)

With Founder’s Square — the social heart of the burgeoning community’s “downtown” district — now partially complete, there’s finally a reliable joint in the immediate area to enjoy a leisurely meal following a tour of the swamps. (No offense to the Gator Shack, the tour’s BBQ sandwich-slinging seasonal snack bar.)

Wedged between the town’s information center and a picturesque man-made lake, the newly opened Table & Tap is a destination eatery in the truest sense. Or at the very least, it’s certainly the only eatery within a 10-mile radius offering miso-glazed pork belly and sriracha chicken wings for lunch.

Not surprisingly, executive chef David Rasht’s farm-to-table-inspired menu has elicited a fair share of “if you cook it, they will come”-isms in the local media. People will drive to the middle of nowhere to eat at an under-construction development’s inaugural commercial business.

By the same token, “town maker” Kitson & Partners has discovered that building energy-efficient homes has caused “them” — not just prospective homebuyers but also curious locals, tourists and smart development aficionados — to come, too.

Whether or not they would was a legitimate concern. After all, the project, which kicked off with a buzzy start following the 2006 land acquisition, suffered a decade-long delay when the housing market crashed in 2008. Stalled indefinitely by an economic crisis, much of that early momentum was lost. But the determined team assembled by Kitson & Partner’s stuck with it. And at long last, initial site prep work began in November 2015.

“They set Earth Day as the date for our big grand reveal. But then, by mid-December [2015], it was already becoming apparent that people — after 10 years of waiting and watching — were going to start noticing that something was going on out here,” says Hall, explaining that outreach to local news outlets began a bit earlier — in January 2016 — than the national media after the locals, as they tend to do, started talking.

“Syd [Kitson & Partners founder and CEO Syd Kitson] wanted to do the big media event on April 22nd after all the false starts of thinking that we’re going to get going. He wanted to do it when it was clearly obvious that we weren’t not just talking about doing it — but when it’s actually happening.”

Fast forward nearly a year. Not knowing what to expect from such a dramatically delayed unveiling, the team was blown away by the enthusiastic and larger-that-anticipated crowds that descended on Babcock Ranch when the first batch of model homes were unveiled during the weekend-long Founder’s Festival. An estimated 20,000 people turned out.

This visionary project, 10 years in the making, finally had something to show for itself.

Warding off reckless development with responsible development

Considering that Babcock Ranch broke ground in late 2015 and opened for sales just earlier this year, the world’s first built-from-scratch solar-powered town still has a lot of growing to do.

Table & Tap is attracting discerning diners from across Punta Gorda, Fort Myers and beyond while Curry Creek Outfitters, an outdoor gear purveyor, is up-and-running as the town’s first retail establishment. The beginnings of a 50-mile-long network of walking and biking trails have been established while attractive public green spaces pop up left and right.

Founder’s Square, recently outfitted with a lakefront boardwalk and band shell, will gain two additional business later this summer: Slater’s Goods & Provisions and Square Scoops, a coffee-cum-ice cream shop. Above these businesses, there are plans for an innovation-centric co-working space dubbed The Hatchery. Next door, the Babcock Neighborhood School — a K through 8 public charter school — will welcome its first students this fall. A health and wellness center is slated to open in 2018.

A dense, walkable core with a mix of commercial businesses and housing types is key to any planned community designed with even the slightest whiff of New Urbanism, a movement with deep — and sometimes complicated — roots in the Sunshine State.

Founder’s Square, which will continue to be built out as the town’s residential phases are completed, is this core.

Much like with Serenbe, a farm-centered community outside of Atlanta, land preservation is also placed front and center at Babcock Ranch. Essentially, it’s all about staving off development with development — halting the relentless sprawl creeping northwards from Fort Myers by fostering sustainable, sensible growth.

And in addition to being cocooned by thousands of acres of protected wilderness, the natural environment is woven through the fabric of development with 50 percent of the town footprint being reserved for open green space, much of it forested.

Hall notes that despite some early squabbles from local conservationists about any sort of encroaching development in the area, the development team was determined to stick to its guns, remain proactive and formulate “a model for smart growth instead of keeping our heads in the sand and pretending it’s not going to happen.”

“Transparency is what got it done,” Hall says.

In addition to the in-house solar power plant and an overriding emphasis on the preservation of natural land, a focus on environmental sustainability carries through to numerous other aspects of Babcock Ranch from the town’s grey water irrigation system and turf-limiting landscaping restrictions to the extensive use of local materials, including sod and road aggregate sourced, respectively, from the ranch’s existing sod farming and mining operations.

The first batch of single-family homes, available in a variety of styles from a half-dozen builders in the first-to-be-completed residential neighborhood, are all built to efficiency standards established by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

Per the community-centered master plan, all of Babcock Ranch’s porch-fronted abodes are required to hug the sidewalks to promote interaction between neighbors. Garages are hidden away and the seamless connection between interior and exterior spaces is evident in each individual home design.

Design-wise, many of the homes pay homage to traditional Gulf Coast architecture in that they’re open, social and well-ventilated with wide, covered porches and multi-pitched roof lines. (Pastel paint jobs, however, don’t seem to have made the cut, at least in the existing model homes.)

And while all new homes at Babcock Ranch are wired for it, rooftop solar is optional, a detail that might surprise those who assume, without realizing the whole shebang is powered by the huge solar power plant down the road, that PV panels would be gracing every square foot of rooftop within America’s first solar-powered town.

Super-fast — so “fast you’ll freak” Babcock Ranch’s promotional material boasts — wireless internet connectivity blankets the development and is included in the $140 per month HOA fee.

“That’s another thing we’ve done combining nature and technology,” says Hall. “The free Wi-Fi will be ubiquitous throughout so that if you want to venture out on a trail and work, go for it.”

On the transportation front, Babcock Ranch is designed for pedestrians and bikes.

There are also plans for self-driving electric shuttles that would link Founder’s Square and the downtown district with the town’s eight distinct villages, each which have their own commercial and community spaces to serve the surrounding neighborhoods. The town is also an early implementation site for on-demand autonomous vehicles that can be summoned via smartphone app.

“The idea is to wean people off of cars,” says Hall, noting that Babcock Ranch is ideal for homeowners with flexible work schedules in the creative and tech sectors.

Babcock Ranch’s car-lite ambitions are no doubt admirable. However, it’s hard to picture Babcock Ranch-ers hoofing or biking it around town in, let’s say mid-August, when Floridians tend to limit their collective existences to air-conditioned bubbles. Unlike bad habits, godawful swampy weather is a bit harder to change.

A mini-city with the Paris Agreement in its DNA

As other New Urbanist communities have learned, Florida’s summertime climate often makes it difficult for residents to loosen their grip on the car keys. It comes with the territory.

But what about the current political climate?

Will our new fossil fuel-friendly reality — a reality lead by a presidential administration that’s all but dismantled the EPA and made it easier for oil and mining companies to drill in protected public lands — have an averse impact on a sustainable mini-city where garages are an afterthought, water-hungry lawns are frowned upon and the streetlights — along with everything else — are powered by the sun? Is there a place for Babcock Ranch in post-Paris Agreement America?

There sure is. With the federal government now sitting on the sidelines when it could be acting as global leader in the realm of greenhouse gas reductions, Babcock Ranch, much like established cities across the country, has been presented with a significant opportunity to impart positive change.

The mayors of numerous Florida cities — Orlando, Tampa, Miami Beach, St. Petersburg among them — have signaled that they will continue the fight against climate change. Cities in Florida are, after all, among the most vulnerable in the country to the devastating impacts of sea level rise.

As an under-development planned community within the limits of Punta Gorda, Babcock Ranch, for now at least, has no mayor to make his or her voice heard. But perhaps it doesn’t really need one at this moment — by its very design, this singular new city throws its full weight behind the Paris Agreement. Renewable energy, which Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims recently observed is a “train only civilizational collapse can stop now,” and slashed carbon emissions are the foundation that the whole 18,000-acre shebang is built upon.

As Babcock Ranch’s developer, Syd Kitson, notes, it’s also time for the private sector to take charge.

“Babcock Ranch is proving that growth and sustainability can work hand in hand. We believe the Earth is too precious and that people and nature are inseparable,” Kitson says. “It is the responsibility of the private sector to step up and lead the world by making it a better place for future generations.”

As for Punta Gorda and greater Charlotte County, it’s safe to assume that this low-key destination along Florida’s Gulf Coast will keep doing what it does best: proving that protected natural beauty, eco-tourism and smart development make for most agreeable neighbors.