Babcock Ranch is a small community making a big impact. Located in southwest Florida just north of Fort Myers, the community dubs itself an innovative new town that sets a whole new standard for sustainable, responsible growth.
The town boasts the largest solar-plus storage system operating in the United States today — combined with fiber optic connectivity in every home, free Wi-Fi everywhere and technological advances so futuristic that it’s the first to attempt building a community in this way. In the same breath, Babcock Ranch also has vast, sprawling green spaces, a massive public trail system and family-friendly parks, all to encourage residents to step outside and reconnect with nature and one another.
The Babcock Ranch Preserve was a 90,000-plus-acre historic ranch that topped Florida’s conservation list for many years. Serving as the missing link to an environmental corridor, rich in high-quality wetlands and home to a number of endangered species, the Babcock Ranch Foundation was created when the land went up for sale with the intent to support, enhance and implement projects that positively impact the state. The plan was hatched to use the land to build an eco-friendly community while educating residents and future Floridians.
“From the beginning, we wanted to focus on preserving this land appropriately,” said Babcock Ranch Media Relations Representative Lisa Hall, who has been on board with the town from its creation. “We made a commitment to be a sustainable community, and we took it a step farther in committing to being the most sustainable community ever built.”
When Babcock Ranch first hatched as an idea in the early 2000s, “sustainability” and “renewable resources” weren’t household words like they are today. As the Foundation set out to build a town from the ground up with the latest and greatest advancements in green power, challenges were faced but the vision was strong.
“Being we live in sunny Florida, being solar powered just made sense,” Hall said. “We had a lot of work to do to explain the logistics of the town to people — helping them realize this isn’t just a new neighborhood. This is a from-the-ground-up, brand-new town.”
Babcock Ranch is 16,000 acres, but only 7,000 of those are going to be used for commercial construction. The rest is dedicated to conservation of the wetlands and species living there. With that type of commitment, the ability to build from the ground up was an advantage.
“When you’re working from a clean slate, you’re literally able to do everything the right way — all the infrastructure, building our founders’ center, building schools, everything,” said Town Developer Syd Kitson. “I believe we’ve done that in an environmentally responsible and technologically savvy way that sets us up well for the future.”
While building a town from nothing has its advantages, it certainly comes with its fair share of challenges, as well.
“This town is massively complex — things are not simple. So we’re dealing with a multitude of issues on a daily basis, everything from working with government to continuing to create the place that is a new town,” Kitson explained. “One of the big issues we’ve had is reminding everybody that we deal with that this is a town and not a gated subdivision that is somewhat typical of Florida. This is an entirely new town, so it has a very different feel. Along with that comes all of the issues, but therein lies all the opportunity.”
Babcock Ranch has been a massive undertaking from the beginning, but the town founders’ commitment to bringing sustainability to Florida in a way never done before supersedes the challenges on a daily basis.
“It took nearly eight years to get this project off the ground,” Kitson said. “Innovation is hard — a lot of people are nervous about innovation and change. We face that every day. It’s rewarding and exciting, but challenging. The challenges are worth it, though.”
And the challenges are far from over. Hall said the town has a master plan divided into phases based on how the build out will happen. Residents and education were of paramount importance, so those landed in phase one. There are currently more than 500 residents in the town with an expanding school system. Up next? Economic opportunity.
“The next stage is businesses and jobs,” Kitson said. “We are really working closely with potential companies moving to Babcock Ranch. Creating the right kind of jobs here is really important to us. We have a major grocer moving in and other shopping popping up, too. That’ll be expanding over the course of the next year.”
Additional future plans include developing a variety of housing options to encourage diversity in residents, Kitson said.
“It’s important to us to make certain the town is diverse in every way possible,” he explained. “Different housing types, price points and jobs that can make that a reality. We want to make certain that everyone feels welcome here, regardless of gender, religion or culture. We want to take as many families as we can comfortably and offer them opportunity to live and grow here.”
While Kitson faces the ebb and flow of challenges and successes at Babcock Ranch every day, he believes he has a responsibility to see this project through.
“Millennials especially care about what their future is going to be like,” he said. “They want to be part of a movement that’s going to protect the environment for themselves and their kids. Those of us who have the ability to make decisions now need to take responsibility for the environmental impact we’re having every time we break ground on a new project.”