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Southwest Florida's Babcock Ranch offers lessons in resilience and sustainability

A large field of solar panels stretches into the distance as smoke drifts above a line of trees
Steve Newborn, WUSF
More than 800 acres of solar panels supply the power for Babcock Ranch.

Babcock Ranch in Southwest Florida offers a vision for resilient, sustainable design, even in the face of climate change, a booming population and a precarious insurance market.

This week lawmakers are back in Tallahassee for a special session. Up for discussion among other bills are measures to provide relief for ranchers affected by Hurricane Idalia and help homeowners struggling with high insurance premiums.

Together with hurricanes, the looming threat of climate change and our booming population, the homeowners insurance crisis is a perfect storm of challenges for Florida.

But one Southwest Florida community thinks it might have some of the answers. In this episode of Florida Matters, we sit down with Babcock Ranch developer Syd Kitson and talk about planning a resilient town and building for an uncertain future.

We also explore what this community of about 5,000 residents on the fringes of a vast tract of conservation land means for the environment.

On the surface, Babcock Ranch doesn’t look too different from many planned communities in Florida. Electric golf carts whizzing past immaculate front yards and tidy homes, people strolling along the sidewalks, pine trees and palms, and in the background, the rumble of construction as new homes are built.

Construction underway on the next phase of development at Babcock Ranch.
Steve Newborn, WUSF
Construction underway on the next phase of development at Babcock Ranch.

But some of what makes this place different isn't immediately obvious. Power lines are buried beneath roads, and the development is designed around a series of lakes and ponds built to handle flooding.

Hurricane Ian was the first real test.

"They actually sent out an advisory before the storm to the residents and saying, 'hey, you know, if your water in that lake behind your house looks like it's getting pretty high, that's okay, it's designed to be that way. If you have water coming up, and it's going between your house, that's okay, it's designed to be that way," says Lisa Hall, communications and community relations advisor for Kitson and Partners and Babcock Ranch.

In addition to the interconnected lakes, says Hall, "our streets provide even more capacity. They're part of that last ditch effort to prevent flooding: you've got those streets that are designed to hold that water as well."

During Hurricane Ian the lights, water and internet stayed on - thanks to hardened FPL lines bringing power into Babcock Ranch.

Babcock Ranch is built around a series of interconnected lakes and ponds designed to handle floodwaters.
Steve Newborn, WUSF
Babcock Ranch is built around a series of interconnected lakes and ponds designed to handle floodwaters.

And during the day, the power to these homes is generated from a vast solar array beyond the northern end of the development.

From an observation tower, a sea of solar panels stretches into the distance.

"It's close to 800 acres. It really looks like you're looking out over the ocean," says Hall.

All of these features helped Babcock Ranch to ride out Hurricane Ian - one of the most destructive storms to ever hit Florida - relatively unscathed.

And since the storm there’s been keen interest in this development, from people who want to live here, and community leaders in other towns and cities who want to emulate what Babcock Ranch got right.

Planning and building this community has been a long process. Syd Kitson’s company paid $700 million for the 91,000 acre property from the Babcock family back in 2005 - then sold 73,000 acres back to the state of Florida, in what was the state’s biggest ever conservation land purchase.

Kitson rode out Hurricane Ian at his Babcock Ranch home.

"I just remember sitting in my home, listening to the weather person on the TV saying, it's headed right for Babcock Ranch. With all sudden that feeling like, oh, my gosh, this is this is it. We're about to be tested, a strong Category 4 hurricane about to hit our community," says Kitson.

"All the work we've done, all the planning, everything that you think that you've done right, you don't really know until you're tested."

After a sleepless night listening to 100 mile per hour plus winds "like a freight train running through my house," Kitson says he jumped in his truck to see how the town had fared.

"And it was absolutely shocking to see minimal damage," says Kitson.

"Literally everybody's walking outside, just looking around almost in stunned silence, just trying to take it all in while all around us there was this destruction, and people had lost their lives. And there was so much devastation surrounding us."

Kitson says while it's expensive, the investment in resilience and sustainability has been worthwhile, and since Hurricane Ian, he's been fielding calls from other communities asking for advice.

Babcock Ranch developer Syd Kitson stands next to a map of the property
Steve Newborn, WUSF
Babcock Ranch developer Syd Kitson stands next to a map of the property

"What what I tell them is if you can get the political will, to not think short term, but think long term, you got to plant some seeds right now. That's like, for example, hardening the infrastructure," he says.

"I mean, you've got to do something, you can't just rebuild it the way it was, because guess what it's going to flood again. And this rinse and repeat of the same mistake just makes no sense at all."

And, says Kitson, sustainability is just as important as resilience as Florida's demand for housing continues.

"There are 1000 people a day moving into Florida net. So when you think about developments, I don't care where they are, or what they are, they have impacts, they create impacts, and we must mitigate those impacts. That's our responsibility, in my view, from the private sector."

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.