Living on the edge: 'The ultimate test'
Solar-powered Babcock Ranch came through Hurricane Ian with minimal damage and no flooding. Its developer believes it can inspire sustainable development in interior Florida.
While Hurricane Ian pounded southwest Florida for eight solid hours last fall, Syd Kitson was hunkered down at his home in Babcock Ranch, the solar-powered town he’d worked to develop over the prior two decades.
The major Category 4 storm was “the ultimate test,” Kitson said last month at the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference in Miami. The winds raged at 100 miles an hour with gusts of more than 150 miles an hour. “I’m sitting in my house, and it was like this perpetual freight train running right through us and it just seemed like it was never gone to end,” he said.
It ended and the sun came up on the solar town. Residents never lost power. They never lost water. They didn’t even lose the internet. While other southwest Florida communities were battered, Babcock Ranch had little to no damage. Babcock used to be known as America’s first solar city, Kitson said. Now, it is known as the city that survived Hurricane Ian unscathed.
Key to being a safe haven, Kitson said, was the community’s location. Babcock lies inland along Highway 31 in Southwest Florida, about a 45-minute drive to the barrier island beaches to the west. With climate change increasing the risks of coastal living, one of the solutions ahead is a population shift to interior Florida—but with new ways to develop that leave plenty of natural lands.
Babcock runs completely on renewable energy. One of the most impressive aspects of the community’s storm experience was the lack of flooding. While neighboring areas sustained devastating standing floods and damage, Babcock remained fully functional throughout and after the storm. Extensive wetlands throughout the community helped absorb Ian’s rains. “They’re gorgeous,” Kitson said of the wetlands. “But they also provide this massive amount of surface water storage that was incredibly helpful.”
Location coupled with ecological preservation are crucial to future Florida residency.
Kitson, a former NFL player turned real estate developer, purchased the 91,000-acre ranch in 2006. His development plan was approved in a public-private partnership with the state of Florida and local governments. The deal sold 73,000 acres to the state for preservation that now includes a big swath of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Construction began in 2015. The ranch now holds the largest solar-plus-storage system operating in the U.S. The neighborhood was intentionally built 30 feet above sea level with more than adequate stormwater drains and retention ponds. All homes are built above building code, which, coupled with underground power lines, alleviates many other crises associated with hurricanes.
Thomas Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida, said Babcock Ranch is an example of the right spatial proportions and scale to achieve most land conservation goals. “Maybe Florida has a tool to use here,” he said, “but we need to do a much better job of addressing the scale and impacts of development.”
Developments would need to be further inland, and stretched across multiple, diffused sets of nodes—central or connecting points with denser development, Hoctor said. Given that the coast is almost completely developed, it’s important to reduce infrastructure costs and protect natural areas as growth moves inland, Hoctor said. In other words, Florida shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Hoctor’s priority is the impact on ecosystems surrounding massive construction projects. He stressed the importance of finding best-case scenarios for reducing human impact; planting Florida-friendly landscapes; and making room for wildlife. A prime example is the recent documentation of Florida panthers mating above the Caloosahatchee River, proving that Babcock Ranch has maintained a hospitable environment for an endangered species. Babcock isn’t the perfect solution for all of Florida, Hoctor said, but it inspires other developments in protecting 75 to 80% of the land, and clustering as much inland as possible.
“The bottom line is Florida simply can’t keep up with everyone wanting single-family homes,” explained Jane West, policy and planning director at 1000 Friends of Florida, a non-profit focused on sustainable communities in the state. The ranch was initially proposed at 93,000 acres, and she toured the location in a helicopter. There was a concerted effort to make sure 73,000 acres were preserved. The Sierra Club helped lead the effort to ensure solar panels provided energy for the development.
West said Babcock Ranch is a good example of a development that did it right. Continued growth is a given. She believes society has an obligation to shift development away from the hazardous coasts. Another sustainability factor is having close-in conveniences like schools, libraries and grocery stories so residents can drive less, which also reduces the overall carbon footprint.
To many developers, the ranch may appear cost prohibitive or unrealistic. West says smaller developments simply don’t have the resources that Kitson was able to amass. Other developers may not care about conservation. However, they might not have a choice as increasing numbers of homeowners prioritize sustainable communities with an ecologically smaller footprint. West believes more “towns of the future” will become common. She said the solution is to build up, not out. She referenced West Palm Century Village as an example, showcasing high-rise towers housing with hundreds of residents per building rather than sprawling development with too much asphalt over too much land.
“The truth is that it’s there and getting high publicity,” West said of Babcock Ranch. Moving forward, homeowners may begin to demand homes like those in Babcock. Factors like migration inland and rising energy costs may top consumer demand for similar eco-conscious neighborhoods.
For the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Ian’s strike on Southwest Florida, environmental journalism students in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications reported on the state’s barrier islands — including the first interactive public map detailing the islands; whether they are inhabited; and a trend of increasing population growth despite increasing risks.
Christina Schuler, a producer at Fort Myers WINK News, has been living in Babcock Ranch along with her family since July 2020. She originally moved to the area for work, and learned about the ranch through a CBS 60 Minutes special. Her family loved the all-inclusive community aspect. With the convenience of the grocery stores, restaurants, activities and other amenities close-by, she said there’s hardly a reason to leave the neighborhood.
While a lot of people boarded up their homes during Hurricane Ian, her family didn’t feel the need. There was never a need for a backup generator. The worst damage reported was a few broken screen doors and missing shingles. Shuler said Floridians have to understand hurricane damage will happen again.
Babcock Ranch became one of the top-10 selling master-planned communities in the nation in 2022, according to RCLCO real estate consultants. Florida’s The Villages and Lakewood Ranch were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Some coast-dwellers who lost homes in Hurricane Ian have turned to the ranch, which promotes several different home designs and prices for families, retirees and millennials. But to others, affordability is the biggest drawback. Potential homebuyer Edward Reese said he took an interest in Babcock Ranch, but the prices of homes currently available forced him to look elsewhere.
Affordability is essential to scaling sustainable communities, West and others say.
That’s just one of the questions facing Florida when it comes to making room for inland population growth. There are a number of others: It’s one thing to build from the ground up in the middle of a cattle ranch. But could Florida retrofit cities to help make way for the people who move from the coasts? Could more government incentives entice builders to include stronger conservation measures?
“It’s a great investment and the cost is nominal compared to the loss of property and loss of productivity and loss of life” in hurricanes, Kitson said. “We’re confident that the private and public sectors can work together to solve today’s challenges.
“I’m incredibly optimistic about our future,” he said. “There’s just this real enthusiasm that we see from all generations to solve these issues.”