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Babcock Ranch, Florida: A new model for sustainability — the first solar-powered town in the U.S.

Babcock Ranch is a new town being developed by Palm Beach Gardens, Florida-based Kitson & Partners

Babcock Ranch is a new town being developed by Palm Beach Gardens, Florida-based Kitson & Partners at the epicenter of Southwest Florida’s newest growth corridor, just 20 minutes east of downtown Fort Myers. Residences in the town’s first neighborhood and Phase 1 of the Downtown District are slated for completion in the first quarter of 2017.

Babcock Ranch Cover

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Powered by the sun, innovation and nature, Babcock Ranch will ultimately accommodate 19,500 single and multifamily homes with a diverse range of price points, approximately 50,000 residents, and 6 million square feet of civic, commercial and industrial space. Places of learning and exploration, a wellness center, restaurants, specialty retail shops, a locally grown produce market, and indoor and outdoor gathering places will convey a Main Street ambiance that invites the town’s residents to enjoy all the Downtown District offers.

While that by-the-facts description may read as typical real estate marketing speak, there is nothing typical about Babcock Ranch. The story of how the town came to be and what it will provide to its initial residents and to future generations may seem paradoxical to some. It is a story that intertwines the seemingly incongruous combination of environmental preservation, the use of innovative technologies, and the financial considerations of real estate development.

How Babcock Ranch came to life

In 1914, the 91,000-acre Crescent B Ranch was acquired by Pittsburgh native Edward Babcock. The renamed Babcock Ranch served as the base for the family’s timber, mining, and agricultural interests for more than 90 years. In 1997, the heirs attempted to sell the property to the State of Florida. By 2005, discussions with the state were terminated. Enter Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners who had visited the site for the first time a year earlier.

“The first time I visited Babcock Ranch was in 2004 and I will never forget it,” says Kitson. “As I was coming down the drive, all I could see were the cattle, the beautiful landscapes, the waterways, flow ways and habitats. It was magical. From that moment, I was hopeful I’d have an opportunity to do something with this beautiful property.”

In July 2005, Kitson & Partners entered into a contract to purchase the Babcock Florida Company, including the 91,000-acre ranch. A year later, after working with government officials from the state, Charlotte County and Lee County, and engaging environmental groups ranging from the Sierra Club, to Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, The Everglades Foundation, the Everglades Trust and the Florida Wildlife Federation, Kitson & Partners completed its purchase.

“July 31, 2006, was one of the proudest days of my career and our entire company’s existence,” says Kitson. “We closed on the 91,000 acres and simultaneously sold 73,000 acres to the State of Florida in the largest land preservation purchase in the history of the state. What that meant was those 73,000 acres were going to be in preservation forever. We had 18,000 acres remaining to build our new town. We’re preserving half of those 18,000 acres. That means 90 percent of the 91,000 acre ranch is in preservation forever. That’s a legacy for us, and for all of the people who made it come together.”

As Kitson & Partners embarked on a planning process that would take nearly 10 years, it established a set of core values that provide the foundation for the development of Babcock Ranch. Those values include a commitment to clean energy, preserving and enhancing the environment, providing avenues for education across all age groups, the use of innovative technologies, and a focus on transportation, health and wellness, and storm safety. With its core values in place, Kitson held a series of charrettes that provided people from the region an opportunity to contribute to the new town’s design.

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“You would be amazed by how much information you can get from people,” says Kitson, “They were able to tell us ‘If we only had this, it would be perfect,’ and ‘This is what I’d really love to have if I lived at Babcock Ranch.’ A lot of the things people talked about ended up in our plan. Then we hired some of the best planners in the country. It wasn’t a matter of who was the least expensive; it was a matter of who was the best.”

The new standard for a clean-energy community

As the planning continued, Syd Kitson went about ensuring Babcock Ranch would have the cleanest energy of any town in the United States. He worked with Florida Power & Light to develop a partnership that will provide solar generated power by day and natural gas generated power at night. As part of the arrangement, Kitson & Partners gave Florida Power & Light 400-acres on which to build an on-site photovoltaic (PV) solar array that will include 350,000 solar panels and a 75 mega-watt power generation and distribution system. Modern “smart grid” digital electric distribution technologies will optimize efficiency and lower utility costs for the town’s residences and businesses. The Babcock Ranch Solar Center is scheduled to go online in November 2016.

Town making is about listening to what the land has to say because you have to capitalize on what you have there. We’re fitting the pieces of the town into nature.

Kitson’s planning experts developed a site plan that ensures more than 90 percent of the town will be built on previously impacted pasture, farm and rock-mined land. The planning and design efforts reduced the town’s wetland impacts to approximately 400-acres. The layout has already started to improve existing flow ways and wetland ecosystems.

“Town making is about listening to what the land has to say because you have to capitalize on what you have there,” says Gary Nelson, Kitson & Partners’ senior vice president of planning and development. “We have these mining lakes and we’re able to work them into the drainage plans. We’re fitting the pieces of the town into nature. In many developments, you see them do preserves and they are strictly wetland preserves. The developer is simply not disturbing what they’re not permitted to disturb. If you peel away the master plan here at Babcock, what you see underneath is all of the disturbed areas — the farm fields and the mining places. And when you see all of the preserve places on the plan, what you’re seeing are the greenways and the flow ways that existed when we started planning Babcock Ranch.”

“The sustainability story here is strong and it’s unique,” says Kitson & Partners’ president and chief information officer, Thomas Hoban. “Our solar energy comes from the site; our mining operation delivers all of the fill and road aggregate we need from the site. We’ve got a sod farm on the property that delivers the sod we need, we’re going to have farming on the site to deliver our produce, we’ve got a water system on-site that’s tapping into the aqua system beneath Babcock to provide our water, and we’ll have our own waste water treatment facility. We’re also going to have a greywater irrigation system for the homes at Babcock Ranch. From a sustainability perspective, it doesn’t get more sustainable than that.”

Kitson has extended its commitment to eco-sustainability to include green building. As a longtime green building proponent and consultant, Dr. Jennifer Languell, owner of Trifecta Construction Solutions, has been actively involved with the Florida Green Building Coalition since its inception 15 years ago and with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) since the 1900s. She has been consulting with Kitson & Partners for the past 10 years to develop the green building guidelines at Babcock Ranch.

“Kitson’s commitment to green building at Babcock Ranch is complete and inspirational,” says Languell. “Every home and every commercial building will not simply be in compliance with the Florida Green Building Coalition’s standards, they will be built at the level required for Green Building Certification. The homes and buildings have to comply with a certain minimum level of performance and there are eight different categories on which builders can choose to focus. The land development as a whole will be certified as well. Babcock Ranch is in Charlotte County, which is a Certified Green local government. So Charlotte County is inherently interested as well.”

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Given Kitson’s core values, the resource efficiency, health and wellness attributes, and durability of the homes and commercial buildings at Babcock Ranch are of paramount importance. Resource efficiency is measured by consumption of resources and includes energy efficiency, water efficiency, materials usage efficiency, design efficiencies, and efficiencies of operation and maintenance.

Health and wellness includes indoor air quality and the absence of volatile organic compounds or VOC’s, that are often found in adhesives, paint and some building materials. Durability is a correlate to Kitson’s position on storm safety, and an important longevity and sustainability consideration in a region like Southwest Florida that is prone to hurricanes and wildfires.

“We have worked in communities that say they will green build and invariably it ends up being a handful of people in that conversation rather than the entire institution,” says Languell. “With Kitson & Partners, it is part of their corporate culture and has been imbued in every facet of Babcock Ranch. It is part of the town’s fabric, and the builders involved have green building experience. We have not seen a commitment to green building to this extent before. This is just how they are going to do it, period.”

There is another layer to the sustainability conversation at Babcock Ranch. Kitson & Partners calls it social sustainability and it is defined by the degree to which people will experience joy by calling the town home. That joy will contribute to the longevity of the town itself and the permanence of the memories created by those who live there.

An integrated, socially sustainable environment

As Kitson emphatically reminds, Babcock Ranch is not another of the gated golf course communities that have defined the Southwest Florida development model for the past half-century. It is a town that offers a place where neighbors will know one another, a place to raise a family or start a second career, and a place that will recall a simpler bygone era.

A walkable, bicycle lifestyle, regional pre-World War II architectural styles with front porches situated more closely to the street, and a multitude of pocket parks and green spaces will generate a level of neighbor-to-neighbor connection that is one of the hallmarks of the new urbanist movement.

A walkable, bicycle lifestyle, regional pre-World War II architectural styles with front porches situated more closely to the street, and a multitude of pocket parks and green spaces will generate a level of neighbor-to-neighbor connection that is one of the hallmarks of the new urbanist movement.

Every home will be within a five-minute walk of a park or green space, and every neighborhood will provide a trail head offering access to a 50-mile network of nature trails. Phase I of the downtown district will include an outfitters store, a produce market and café, a lakefront restaurant, an Encore Career Center where entrepreneurs can ponder new ventures, and Founder’s Square, a lakefront green space for concerts, community events and simply enjoying the day. Ultra-high speed internet will connect homes and businesses to the world. Autonomous vehicles will provide an alternative way to move about within and beyond the town. Babcock Ranch’s first school will open in fall, 2017 and a wellness center will open in spring, 2018.

“Town makers make decisions that affect people forever,” says Babcock Ranch president Rick Severance. “You have to say ‘I see that here, but what is that going to feel like 10 years from now?’ Towns are about building relationships and relationships transcend a particular segment of the market. It’s not just about a baby boomer, or a 50 plus, or the millennials. We’ve created the environment so there can be this social connection and folks may not even recognize that’s what it is, but it’s really mindful planning and being very thoughtful about creating environments where they can integrate together.”

“When we looked at creating this sustainable community, we thought about how we could treat this land and how we could create the places we wanted to create so that it would be additive to future generations and not diminish them,” says Syd Kitson. “So creating a place that caters to not only what’s going on today, but really is thoughtful about the future and can serve as a model for the development of towns in the future is what we’re trying to do here. And that legacy is very, very important to us.”

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