Southwest Florida's Eco-Friendly Babcock Ranch
This new eco-friendly Southwest Florida town comes to life as more people call it homeBY BETH LUBERECKI
Babcock Ranch is more than just a place in the sun. This new, 18,000-acre Florida community in Charlotte and Lee counties literally depends on the sun, as it’s been dubbed “America’s first solar-powered town.”
Planning for Babcock Ranch started back in 2006. The Great Recession put a pause on development, but work finally began in late 2015. The community’s generated a lot of buzz for its focus on the environment, sustainability and smart growth. But are regular folks as passionate about Babcock’s eco-friendly approach as its developers?
Looks like it. The community had logged about 400 home sales and was averaging five to 10 home sales a week in summer 2019. Downtown district Founder’s Square is filled with shops, restaurants and other businesses that attract residents and folks who live outside Babcock Ranch. The A-rated Babcock Neighborhood School has pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade. Five miles of hiking trails are open and Lake Babcock offers a fishing dock and kayak and canoe launch.
“People are not ‘pioneering’ anymore at Babcock Ranch,” says Syd Kitson, CEO/chairman of Kitson & Partners, the developer of Babcock Ranch. “We’re a full-fledged, operating community. Our biggest problem now is trying to get all the houses built; we are literally building houses as fast as we possibly can.”
A total of 19,500 residences are planned for the eventual town of 50,000. The first phase of home construction includes 700 single-family and 400 attached and multifamily homes in a range of price points starting in the low $200,000s. Architectural styles represented include Craftsman, Farmhouse, Coastal Gulf Vernacular, Spanish and Colonial/West Indies, and homes are designed to both blend with the natural environment and recall simpler times.
They’re also, of course, built with energy efficiency and sustainability in mind. So the community’s residential design principles include things such as porches and eaves for passive cooling, faucets and showerheads that conserve water, high-performance windows and insulation and low-impact native landscaping. All homes must achieve at least a Bronze standard of certification from the Florida Green Building Coalition.
Builders working at the community include Stock Classic Homes, Pulte Homes, Lennar and Meritage Homes. The 10 different builders offer more than 50 home designs ranging from 1,107 to 5,000 square feet.
“We have found that the builders have been extremely receptive [to the community],” says Kitson. “They understand what Babcock Ranch is about but also recognize that this is the wave of the future. Things we talked about eight, nine or 10 years ago that were kind of groundbreaking are now just becoming standard.”
Former Estero residents Janette Dulaney and Daniel Geist purchased a six-bedroom, more than 3,800-square-foot Lennar home in the community’s Trail’s Edge neighborhood. “Our first electricity bill was half the cost of our old home’s, yet we have double the square footage now,” says Dulaney. “It’s mind-blowing!”
The parents of three young children chose their neighborhood for its family-friendly appeal and the community in general for its appreciation of the outdoors. “We love the hiking trails, outdoor activities, lakes and the emphasis on nature,” says Dulaney. “We own paddleboards and a canoe and often take the kids out on the water or go fishing.”
Healthy living and a respect for the land are two of the core initiatives of the community. “The more people are outside and appreciate their environment, the more respectful they’re going to be,” says Kitson.
Technology was also important in the master plan. Through a partnership with CenturyLink, gigabit internet is standard to every home, making it fast and easy to work from home and take advantage of technology in other ways now and in the future. Babcock Ranch even offers free Wi-Fi outdoors, and if that provides the incentive for someone to get out into nature, Kitson’s OK with that.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get people outside,” he says. “So we’ll bring the technology outside and meet them there.”
“We’re hoping that in a few years people realize they only need one car—and eventually realize they don’t need any cars,” he says. “When you talk about the game changers, the things that can really have an impact on society, that’s one of them.”To solar-power the town, Babcock Ranch partnered with Florida Power & Light on a solar facility that will produce all of the energy the town will need to function—and then some. But that’s just the beginning of what’s possible. The community has also begun rolling out its autonomous vehicle system, featuring self-driving, electric-powered vehicles. As that system grows, Kitson envisions it leading to major lifestyle changes for residents.
Babcock Ranch definitely has a bold vision. But it’s one plenty of its new residents share, and something others want to replicate based on the phone calls Kitson has received from around the world.
“Our residents truly believe that what we are doing is the right thing,” says Kitson. “I hope we’re starting a model for being environmentally responsible. A thousand people a day are moving into Florida and they need to live somewhere, and we feel you need to do it the right way. Climate change is not a political issue: It’s a science and fact issue, and we’re dealing with it head on.”
Beth Luberecki is a Nokomis, Florida–based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to TOTI Media. Learn more about her work at bethluberecki.com.