Welcome to Babcock Ranch, just east of Punta Gorda. It is America’s first solar powered city. It is quite remarkable in it’s vision and core initiatives for sustainable living. It is being described as Florida’s “city of the future” and it is here today.
A few Saturday’s ago I decided to take the tour of Babcock Ranch and it’s futuristic solar fields to learn more about this city of the future with it’s emphasis on sustainable living, smart growth and preservation. It is located right here in our own backyard, just an hour south of my home on the Island of Venice. I was thoroughly impressed from what I saw and learned on a recent visit.
Here is a quick summary of the history of Babcock Ranch. In the late 1800’s, the original 150,000+ acre ranch was owned by
Montana gold miners, the Perry McAdow family and it was called The Crescent B Ranch. Around the turn of the century Mr. McAdow became the president of one of Punta Gorda’s first banks. He eventually donated 60,000 acres to the state of Florida and retained the remaining 91,000 acres for ranching and farming. In 1914 Edward Babcock, a Pittsburgh lumber magnate and one of the early mayors of Pittsburgh, purchased the ranch. The Babcock’s continually maintained the ranch and all of it’s operations for over 80 years. When Fred Babcock (son of Edward) died in 1997 the Babcock heirs tried to sell the ranch to the state of Florida. The state could not afford it. The ranch with it’s 156 heirs kept it for sale.
In 2005 Syd Kitson, ex-NFL player and chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners set out to prove that smart growth and preservation could work hand-in-hand. They purchased the ranch from the Babcock family and just one year later Mr. Kitson made good on the preservation side of the equation. 73,000 acres were sold to the State of Florida for creation of the Babcock Ranch Preserve. It remains the largest preservation land purchase in Florida history. The new town called Babcock Ranch got approvals for 18,000 acres and is being developed by Kitson as envisioned to be the perfect neighbor for the preserve. Babcock Ranch is a very innovative community with sustainability built right into the infrastructure from the start. Of the 18,000 acres, half of that or 9,000 acres, is open space; parks, preserves, trails, lakes, greenways, wetlands and community gardens. There will be over 50 miles of trails for walking, hiking and biking within the new city.
Building a new town from the ground up was quite a task. Kitson’s plan for the new city is driven by eight core initiatives; environment, health, education, energy, technology, transportation, storm safety and fun. These initiatives guide every planning decision as the vision for Babcock Ranch becomes reality.
The way Kitson imagines it, the town will eventually house up to 50,000 residents in about 19,500 homes. Almost all of the homes and the commercial buildings, street lights, car charging stations and everything else will be powered by solar energy. To that end Kitson donated 440 acres of land to Florida Power and Light. FPL outfitted it with solar panels, nearly 343,000 of them, that now generates 75 megawatts of electricity. Soon FPL will build another solar field about the same size and will generate a total of 150 megawatts. On average, each megawatt is enough to power 164 homes. The panels, are hooked up to the main power grid so that any excess power can be used by other utility customers outside of Babcock Ranch. There are now 10 large storage batteries too allowing for excess energy to be stored and used when needed. Currently, Babcock Ranch is putting more energy into the grid than it’s taking out. Residents still pay an electric bill but their power is coming directly from the sun and their homes are much more energy efficient by design.
Crews first broke ground on the town in 2015 but Kitson says it would have been earlier if it had not been for the great recession when he bought the land in 2006. About 40 families have so far moved in with another 150 homes under construction. In 20 years when the land is fully populated, Kitson plans to incorporate. About 80% of Babcock Ranch is in Charlotte County. The other 20% including the river is in Lee County.
Babcock Ranch doesn’t have all the features of a typical American city yet but it does already have a public school in the downtown area which is A rated and currently enrolled 156 students. A brand new school will open this fall with nearly 300 students all ready signed up most of whom currently live outside of town.
There is a downtown district with shops and offices and waterfront park. There is also a gym where the gym cardio and other equipment produces energy from the machines that goes back into the grid. There’s a community garden, swimming pool, a seed-to-table gastropub that serves locally grown organic food and also a co-working business incubation space called the Hatchery. All around town are “solar trees” where people can recharge their laptops, cell phones and hand held devices. All of the parking lots have plentiful car recharging stations powered by more solar trees.The town is testing an electric driverless bus network that Kitson hopes will eventually be a major mode of transportation for the town’s residents. You simply use an app on your cell phone and the driver-less minibus will appear at your door and take you on your errands or to meet with your friends at the restaurants or parks eliminating the need to always be burning fossil fuels.
Every home is outfitted with the fastest internet available, one gigabyte. All homes have car charging stations built in. All the landscaping and vegetation is native with plants and sod grown on the ranch.The irrigation water is all reclaimed water from the ranch. All homes and buildings are built to exceed all green building standards and exceed all current storm and hurricane standards including impact glass. The roads also use materials from the mining operations on the ranch.
Kitson wants to prove sustainable development is not only possible in the State of Florida but also economical. He says the installation of the fiber-optic cables for example added no extra cost because they were able to lay them down at the same time they were building out the rest of the infrastructure.
Currently there are about 8 approved builders in Babcock Ranch and more on the way. Home prices start in the low $200,000’s and top out around $1,000,000 for house and premium lot. Most of the homes now are three types of styles; Florida Cracker, Key West and West Indies. To me this was one of the more pleasant surprises I encountered. I think the Mediterranean Revival homes in our local new communities is rather stale, overused and over-the-top. These traditional Florida designs seem much more appropriate in the ambiance of this new city.
Almost all of the homes are designed with old fashioned front porches encouraging a neighborly sense of community. Most have metal roofs. Many of the neighborhoods will have back alley access garages so garages and cars do not dominate the streetscape. Some of the homes even have accessory structures for office and guest quarters on the back of the house. Every neighborhood will have a trailhead within it giving residents easy access to the 50 miles of trails.
Babcock Ranch is still in its infancy but it does evoke a spirit of innovation, environmental sustainability, conservation of the land and natural resources and an engagement of the people. As the first truly solar powered city in America it has generated more worldwide interest with media news crews from around the world visiting and publishing special reports abroad. In fact while preparing this blog article, I saw and read references from quite a few international news outlets as-well-as major U S. news organizations that have come to BR.
Sierra Club noted that there are a few communities in the U.S. that are transitioning to solar like Aspen, CO; Burlington, VT; Greensburg, KS; Rockport, MO; and Kodiak Island, AK. However, Babcock Ranch has designed solar power and sustainability into the entire fabric of the community from the very begining.
Babcock Ranch will certainly encourage other cities and towns to make sustainability part of their community DNA. Babcock Ranch officials say they are building upon learning from other smart cities and they embody all the facets of the sustainability label but with an emphasis on social, physical, nutritional, spiritual, economic and educational well-being of the residents and businesses.
As I took the solar field tour and toured the town and new neighborhoods under construction with an ambassador from the town’s Discovery Center, I could feel I was in someplace very special and remarkable and quite unique. I ate at the gastropub on the lake, shopped at the general store, visited the state of the art gym, saw the first large community garden, walked the lakefront trail, toured the model homes, visited the first completed HOA community center. I spoke with the early pioneering residents, Jim and Donna Aveck, the second family to move into Babcock Ranch, who enthusiasticaly shared their feelings about BR. “You just don’t live at Babcock Ranch. You thrive at Babcock Ranch.”
Honestly after my day at Babcock Ranch, I really felt like I was visiting the future. Everything about the town incorporates the ideas and values, I think we all know intuitively, should be the future in the communities we live, work and play.
The future that belongs to us, our children and future generations.The children I saw everywhere I went in Babcock Ranch.
I encourage you too to take the short drive to Babcock Ranch and see for yourselves how the country’s first solar powered town has arrived right here in our own backyard. Visit their website first www.babcockranch.com
Be sure to sign up for the solar field tour. Then hang around and take the very informative bus tour of the ranch provided by the friendly and knowledgeable staff at the Discovery Center. Find out for yourself what the future can be.