The master plan was approved in 2006, but the project was put on hold through the economic downturn of the late 2000s, which Kitson admitted was “less of a curveball, more of a boulder.”Babcock Ranch is still in its infancy. Only about 20 families have taken up residence so far, a number that’s expected to grow to about 100 by the end of this year as more new homes become ready for occupancy. The Babcock Ranch Neighborhood School already has 156 students (who live outside the town). Shannon Treece, the principal, says the development growing up around the school provides hands-on, real-life lessons in environmental stewardship.“We are in a place that … just evokes that spirit of innovation and that engagement of people,” Treece said. “It’s easy to open a textbook and read and answer questions. But project-based learning has a really specific driving question, and it always has a community-partner piece as well, which is, ‘How is it going to change the community we’re in?’ That’s the connection to here.”With guidance from the chef of the Tap and Table, Babcock’s gastropub, students aced a recent solar cook-off tournament against other local schools. They harvested ingredients from their own community garden and created a three-course teriyaki meal. The students also track how much energy the school consumes by reading data from a solar tree in their playground.
When a larger school building opens in August, there will be twice as many children, teachers, and staff. Ultimately, there are plans for eight schools from pre-K to high school, with enrollment open to any child who qualifies to attend public school in Charlotte County.Two likely future students are the three-year-old son and newborn daughter of Matt Angerer. Angerer rents an office in The Hatchery for his online business, and can’t wait to move his young family to Babcock when their home is ready in September.“What better situation than having a home here and office space to grow my company and my family?” he said. “I’m an early adopter. I believe in technological innovation, but I also think we should leverage technology to help the environment and sustainability.”Angerer said that everything at Babcock Ranch “fit the bill for us, including the school. They’re focusing on the family core, a comfortable and safe place to bring your children. (That is, apart from the alligators, which are “everywhere,” he said.)Local criticism of the development so far has focused on the environmental impacts of its footprint. When Kitson bought the 91,000-acre working ranch in 2006 for more than $500 million, it had seen cattle ranching, alligator farming, the raising of crops including watermelons, and even rock mining and eco-tourism, but faced an uncertain future in the wake of the death of sole landowner and family patriarch Fred Babcock in 1997.* Yet because of the ongoing stewardship of the land, it was in good condition.
After the purchase, Kitson immediately sold 73,000 acres, or about 80 percent of it, to the state of Florida for preservation, with the remaining 18,000 acres, spanning Charlotte and Lee counties, set for development over the next 20 years. At a meeting of the Lee County commission in February, Kitson won approval for a land-use change from agricultural to planned development, and got a green light for construction of Babcock’s southern section (everything else so far has been in Charlotte County). Some environmentalists spoke out. Carl Veaux, vice president of the Cape Coral Wildlife Trust, accused commissioners of “ripping the word ‘rural’ right out of the heart of Lee County,” according to the News-Press. “This is the most beautiful parcel of land on Babcock Ranch, and they’re going to develop it.”Kitson wants his critics to see the town firsthand before passing judgment. “They think they’ll come in and [it’ll be] like George Jetson, but it’s not. It’s an old-town feeling with all of those modern conveniences and technology of today.”He acknowledges that some will question the choices that were made for Babcock Ranch on environmental grounds, and whether it can call itself fully sustainable when, for example, residents still need cars to commute to jobs in other towns, and the housing stock is larger detached homes rather than higher-density units.His answer is that he has made a laboratory out of a place where traditional models of community and family life are central. New ideas can be developed and tested at Babcock Ranch, and expanded gradually toward sustainability, without wholesale changes that would be too radical for many people.
“Americans are not going to go from one car for every driver to no cars for every household overnight,” Kitson said. “We start by making the cars just one option for getting around. When people can walk, bike, catch a shuttle, use a handheld device to summon an autonomous vehicle, or utilize a shared vehicle service for trips off-site, they will quickly realize they don’t really need their own car.”“What we are creating,” he continued, “is a suburban–urban environment with everything in walking distance, and [we’re] working continuously to bring more jobs within our town footprint to achieve the goal of a real, multi-generational town where people live, work, and play.”
McMahon believes that solar power, for Babcock, is the market differentiator that large, out-of-town developments need these days to prompt people to move there, as well as an environmental good. “It’s a greenfield site; everybody has to drive there from somewhere else, [and] there’s energy used in building the site and getting to it and from it,” he conceded. “So it’s not completely carbon-neutral in that sense. But as we like to say at the Urban Land Institute, ‘It’s better to be half right than all wrong.’”In the future, McMahon continued, “the most successful communities in Florida are going to be ones that are walkable, where you can reduce your transportation. There’s no place that’s probably perfect, but all these things are steps in the right direction.”For Richard Kinley and his wife Robin, Babcock’s first residents, who moved into their house in January from Atlanta, the development is living up to its promise so far. “It feels like you’re gaining good karma, living here,” said Richard Kinley, a semi-retired medical professional.“We go days without needing air conditioning, because homes are built to green standards and are well insulated. The metal roof helps decrease costs. I also have an electric car charging in the garage, so I’m using solar energy to drive around the state,” he said. “We want to live here because it encourages a lifestyle we want to take on. It’s nice to live in a community where like-minded people are moving.”All of which is music to Kitson’s ears. “If I come back in 20 years,” he said, “and see families, empty nesters, and retirees all mingling together; autonomous vehicles taking people from place to place; kids using technology outdoors; a respect for nature where the air is clean and the water is pure—that those things we talked about from Day One have come to fruition—then it will all have been worth it.”
At ClearWorld, we are starting to see solar lighting aspects that are truly changing the way human beings interact with their environment. Babcock Ranch is a testament to the transformative power of renewable technology and highlights where the future of the industry is heading. We look forward to contributing to the growth of solar cities.