Sunny Florida sustains ambitious, solar vision

Having heard tales of Babcock Ranch, an unusual greenfield community taking shape near Fort Myers, our area expert decided to check it out. He came away encouraged, but others are not so sure.

Babcock Ranch: The world’s first solar town 

  • The town sits on an 18,000-acre site that was originally part of the 91,000-acre Crescent B Ranch.
  • Half the property is green space, the other half is being developed around sustainability and conservation.
  • When the town is completed – it is still in Phase 1 –  it is expected to have a population of 50,000.

 


If you are searching for perhaps the most sustainable place to live in America, look no further than Babcock Ranch FL, which bills itself as “the world’s first solar-powered town.” While that claim, itself, is debatable (see Comments at bottom), I still found much to like when I recently visited Babcock Ranch, located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, just a few minutes north of Fort Myers.

The town itself is on an 18,000-acre site that was originally part of the 91,000-acre Crescent B Ranch. It was renamed Babcock Ranch when it was acquired by Edward Babcock in 1914, primarily for timber and rock mining. In 2006, Kitson & Partners, led by former NFL player Sydney “Syd” Kitson, purchased the property and resold 73,000 acres back to the state for permanent preservation. At the time, that was the largest conservation land deal of its kind in Florida history.

Syd Kitson

Kitson’s vision was of smart growth and preservation working hand in hand. So, of the 18,000 acres retained for the new town of Babcock Ranch, half of that property is also preserved as green space. The other 9,000 acres is being developed around the principles of sustainability and conservation, to meet Kitson’s goal of creating “the most sustainable new town in America.” When the town is completed – it is still in Phase I (see maps below) –  it is expected to have 19,500 residences and a population of 50,000.

Babcock Ranch Map

On August 1, 2016, the Florida Forest Service began managing the Babcock Ranch Preserve as a working ranch, while providing public recreational opportunities compatible with agricultural operations. The Preserve provides habitat for a wide range of species including the Florida black bear and the Florida panther. Last year, motion-activated trail cameras confirmed sightings of at least two panther kittens, presumed to be the offspring of the first wild female panther seen north of the Caloosahatchee River since 1973. 

The Preserve is also home to the Osceola subspecies of native wild turkey, which is found only in peninsular Florida, as well as to abundant populations of white-tailed deer and northern bobwhite. In all, 13 wildlife species that are listed as endangered, threatened, or “of special concern,” have been found in the Preserve. In addition to the many outdoor opportunities in the Preserve, the town itself has five miles of hiking trails already open and a 50-mile hiking and biking trail network will be ready upon completion.

Babcock Ranch, itself, is in unincorporated Charlotte County and was created by an Interlocal Agreement with the County as the Babcock Ranch Community Independent Special District (ISD). Under Florida law, an ISD is a unit of local government with the authority to govern public services and facilities within a limited geographical boundary. According to Lisa Hall, president and CEO of Hall+Media Strategies, it is anticipated that the town will eventually incorporate. Lisa, who has served as the media contact and go-to communications person since Kitson first shared his vision of the project with her in 2005, hosted my tour of Babcock Ranch. She is, as one would expect, very knowledgeable and passionately enthusiastic about the new town.

Self-driving shuttle

At Lisa’s suggestion, the first step in my tour of the town was to ride the autonomous shuttle that connects Founder’s Square, the downtown commercial area, with the Community Garden and the Lakehouse and Pool, the first of the amenity centers that every neighborhood will have. It is completely self-driving on a pre-programmed route, no tracks or wires, just touch the green button and go.

Lisa Hall

The vehicle has a top speed of 25 MPH, but runs its route at a modest 10-15 MPH, and as if it was not already unique enough, it is equipped with a genuine trolley bell (some of you may remember the old Rice-A-Roni commercials). Operated as a joint venture with Chicago-based Transdev, the self-driving shuttle is the first phase of a plan that will eventually provide a fleet of on-demand, point-to-point, autonomous vehicles controlled from one’s smartphone. There are also plenty of bikes (and other pedal-powered vehicles) to rent or borrow, for those who have gotten the hint about not relying on their cars in the town and don’t want to walk the short distances to shopping, schools, and services.

Solar Rows at Babcock Ranch

So where does one start in building a new town – and, particularly, an eco-centric one? Literally from the ground up?

The original development schedule for Babcock Ranch was, like so many other projects in Florida and throughout the country, adversely impacted by the “Great Recession” of 2007.  Design and planning activities continued, however, and with the help of Charlotte County officials, Kitson was able to partner with Florida Power & Light (FPL) for construction of a 74.5-Mw solar plant adjacent to the town. Built on 440 acres donated by Kitson, the FPL Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center broke ground in October 2015 and went online on New Year’s Eve 2016.  Powered by more than 330,000 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, the plant is intended to produce clean, renewable energy in excess of the total amount the town will consume.

A few weeks after work on the solar energy center started, construction of the new town began in earnest. By Earth Day 2016, underground utilities (lines for potable water, reclaimed water, and sanitary sewer) were in place and road paving was ready to begin. Two months later, ground was broken for Founder’s Square, the lakefront downtown district. Now open are dining establishments that include Table & Tap, a farm-to-table restaurant with some of its produce grown in the Community Garden; Square Scoops Coffee & Creamery; and Slater’s Goods & Provisions, a market and café. Located above Slater’s is the Hatchery, a coworking space that includes fixed offices and flex-space.  Across the street from Slater’s is the Curry Creek Outfitters, the first retail store in Babcock Ranch, carrying fishing gear, t-shirts, hats, sunscreen, and canoe and kayak rentals. Curry Creek also offers free electric boat tours, with the opportunity to catch the native bass that are abundant in the 220-acre Lake Babcock. That lake, and Lake Timber (approximately 80 acres), are reclaimed mining lakes and are interconnected so that, along with the prevalence of native plants, the risk of flooding is reduced.

Weirs were built to rehydrate the existing wetlands, and the town’s ecosystem is further enhanced with filter marshes and rain gardens. And all the commercial buildings in Babcock Ranch are, or will be, certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC).

Banking on education, health

 Founder’s Square also is home to the Babcock Neighborhood School. Since schools are not generally built until there are students, and since families with school-age children do not want to live in a place without schools, Babcock Ranch was presented with a chicken-and-egg dilemma. The solution was to make the school a free public charter, K-6 school, open to all students who qualify to attend a public school in Charlotte County. Opened last August, the school quickly reached its capacity of 156 students and a new, 500-student capacity, K-8 school is now under construction a few blocks away. The current school offers a “place-based” environmentally focused “greenSTEAM” education program that integrates science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics, and uses the sustainability and conservation principles of Babcock Ranch to provide opportunities for hands-on, project-based learning about nature, health and renewable energy.

And the Babcock Ranch planners have not neglected health.

Currently under construction is a 26,400-sq-ft health and wellness center that will bring onsite health care to the new town and surrounding communities. Lee Health, which has been providing health care to Southwest Florida residents since 1916, will occupy approximately 80% of the new facility with its clinic, initially providing six exam rooms for physicians and a nurse practitioner offering family medicine, as well as prenatal and pediatric care. The other 20% of the new center will include a six-lane saltwater swimming pool, multiuse basketball half court, and energy-efficient cardio- and strength-training equipment. Pilates, massage, and physical therapy will also be offered in the center.

By the way, if one looks closely, the individual solar PV panels on the commercial buildings (and school) shed roofs can be seen. In addition to the energy provided by FPL’s solar energy center, the solar panels installed on these commercial buildings are the first of the micro-grids that will expand the utility’s solar generating capacity as the town grows. Also located in Founder’s Square, in the parks, are several solar trees similar to the ones about which I wrote here last year. 

Since the HPAC Engineering audience consists primarily of HVACR professionals, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the town’s utility plants.

All of the downtown buildings are served with chilled water, distributed through underground lines. The central chiller plant, located on a fenced pad a short distance behind the school, consists of two Trane model RTAC 155-ton high-efficiency air-cooled chillers, each having a full load efficiency of 10.4 EER and a part-load efficiency of 13.9 EER, with a maximum flow rate of 741 GPM. The town’s state-of-the-art nanofiltration water plant draws from a 110-foot deep aquifer and is presently capable of providing 250,000 gallons per day (GPD) of potable water. The waste water treatment plant can currently treat 200,000 GPD of gray water into reclaimed water for irrigation. When the town is completely built-out, the water plant’s capacity will be 6 million gallons per day (MGD) and the treatment plant’s capacity will be 4.5 MGD, with 90% of the town’s gray water being reclaimed for irrigation (every home site has purple pipe stubbed up for this purpose).

Planning on green growth

 There are now seven builders in the town, offering some 56 different floor plans of two- to six-bedroom single-family houses and townhomes. The homes, which range in size from 1,400-sq-ft to nearly 5,000-sq-ft, are priced from $190K to nearly $1M. In addition to the sustainable building practices that have qualified them for FGBC and Florida Water Star certifications, all the homes – regardless of builder or price – will be pre-wired for solar PV and electric vehicle charging stations, and will include natural gas-fired tankless water heaters.

If you happen to be in the Fort Myers area, I strongly encourage you to visit Babcock Ranch. It is a great testament to how one individual’s vision can become an amazing accomplishment and gives real credence to the green principles of people, planet, and profits. If only my office wasn’t two-and-a-half hours away!

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