A big idea worth noting
In Florida’s business world, it’s not hard to find successful people who are good at making money. The real standouts, however, are those who go about their business with some sense of higher purpose that manifests itself either in extraordinary service to their communities or in pursuit of a Big Idea.
Those with the Big Ideas are the rarest: Jeb Bush, and his drive to improve Florida’s educational system; Peter Rummell’s original plan for St. Joe’s property in Northwest Florida; Manny Medina, and his push to establish Miami as a tech center; and the Morse family and its vision for the Villages.
For about 15 years, developer Syd Kitson has worked on his own Big Idea: Building, from scratch, an 18,000-acre town called Babcock Ranch that would integrate preservation with development and embody a vision of how to engineer essential quality-of-life features like education, health, energy, technology and transportation.
About a decade ago, a group from Florida Trend toured Kitson’s property — in Southwest Florida about 16 miles northeast of Fort Myers — and heard him talk about his plans. There was little more to see at that point than a few acres of cleared land and a pile of dirt, and Kitson remembers us telling him that the whole thing sounded very nice but to “call us when you’ve got something.”
Well, a month or so ago, he called, and he’s got something.
First, a bit of context. The 2006 deal that created Kitson’s development canvas involved 91,000 acres of farms, ranchland and pristine forest and wetlands that had been owned by the Babcock family since the early 1900s. The state wanted to buy the property for preservation land, and the Babcocks were eager to have the land preserved and willing to sell. But state rules prohibited the purchase of property structured as a stock company, which is how the family had organized its ownership. Jack Peeples, an attorney in Tallahassee who represented the family, reached out to Kitson because of his reputation for integrity. Working with the Babcock family and Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration, Kitson bought the property, which eliminated the stock ownership factor, then immediately sold 73,000 acres to the state, which will keep it in preservation. The sale was the biggest preservation land purchase in Florida history. The old ranch property, now managed by the state, already attracts some 30,000 eco-tourists each year.
Kitson kept roughly 18,000 acres. He developed plans to build 19,500 housing units, along with commercial and retail space, on 9,000 acres and is keeping half in preservation.
The project survived the Great Recession, and sales began surging during the pandemic — contrary to Kitson’s own expectations. The sales momentum hasn’t let up. Today, Babcock Ranch has more than 1,000 homes, some 3,500 residents, a K-10 charter public school that Kitson built before the town had residents, and the first of several village-style commercial areas. Homes are selling at the rate of 700 a year. About 50% of the population is composed of young families with school-age children. The projected population of the town, once it’s built out, is around 50,000.
Most notably, Kitson has realized his goal of having the town powered by the sun. A deal with FPL produced two 75-megawatt solar fields and an attached 10-megawatt battery storage facility that can store enough electricity to power the town for four hours. It’s the only solar-powered town in the country, and the solar plant-battery combo was the largest such system in the country when constructed. Kitson is working with FPL to expand the storage facility with a goal of having the entire town off the grid at some point.
Environmental considerations dominate throughout Babcock Ranch. Native vegetation and grasses are standard. Turf coverage is limited to 30% of residential lots. Kitson preserved existing wetlands and integrated them as pieces of the town’s stormwater system. Every neighborhood has access to a trail system that will ultimately extend for 50 miles. All homes are built to a minimum of bronze LEED certification, with a gigabit of fiber optic internet capacity wired into every home. Several model homes are being built as labs for various technological innovations, and a transportation system using autonomous vehicles is in the works — Kitson believes that within 10 years, the homeowners in Babcock Ranch will all feel they can get by with one car.
Kitson isn’t trying to build an upscale enclave. Babcock Ranch includes apartment buildings and single-family homes meant to be rented. Housing choices extend across a wide price range and are being marketed to a diverse group of buyers.
There really isn’t anything like it in Florida or anywhere else, and the project is beginning to attract attention, nationally and internationally, from both media and business interests. Most notably, a company from Finland bought a piece of property on the fringe of the development and has set up a 2.5-acre hydroponic farm under glass that grows greens and herbs — generating the same output that would require more than 60 acres of traditional farmland.
Kitson is succeeding with his vision because he’s been able to operate at scale and because he found a patient financial partner, Evergreen Investment Advisors, a pension fund manager, that shared his goals and took a long view as the project weathered the recession and navigated the raft of regulatory approvals it needed.
But the important thing to note about Babcock Ranch is that there was a vision — one that works with the environment rather than altering it and that tries to anticipate how people will want to live and move about their communities in the future. Developers and economic developers take note: Babcock Ranch is the kind of place that will further erode Florida’s fading image as a retirement haven and enhance the state’s growing identity as a dynamic, forward-looking place to do business.
Patience. A long view. Sensitivity to the natural environment. A vision. “Other developers should be doing the kind of things we’re doing,” Kitson says. Amen.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's September issue.
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