Back to the FUTURE THE BOTTOM LINE: Babcock Ranch seeks delicate balance

April 4th, 2018

By Gary Roberts, Staff Writer - Charlotte Sun


A new downtown. A new school. A new green way of living. With Babcock Ranch “coming to life right now,” can it deliver on all its promises? Only time will tell.

When developer Syd Kitson first tendered an offer for the family-owned Babcock Ranch more than a decade ago, he was competing with the state government and local environmental groups. After all, the ranch spread out over 91,000 acres of vast cow pastures, pristine pine forests and cypress swamps.

But Kitson’s plan to preserve the Old Florida working cattle ranch, sell off a huge tract of land to the state and develop a modern city in harmony with nature won over the family.

Dick Cuda, son-in-law of Fred C. Babcock, who ran the ranch for more than a half-century, said it was “difficult to part with something that has been part of our family for so long,” according to published reports in 2005.

However, in his role as president of Babcock Florida, Cuda also called the sale a new opportunity “to achieve what Babcock Ranch has always stood for — responsible business enterprise enabling the management and preservation of land that is important to the environment and uniquely Florida.”

Founder’s Square in Babcock Ranch.

Developer Syd Kitson looks over the property he purchased in 2006.

Solar field at Babcock Ranch.

Homes are now under construction at Babcock Ranch, with the first residents expected to arrive early next year.

Kitson & Partners, backed by financial services giant Morgan Stanley, bought the Babcock wildlife preserve, kept 18,000 acres for his village of the future and sold 73,000 acres to the state. The Sun reported that Kitson met Babcock’s asking price of $480 million, contingent on development approvals. In receiving $350 million from the state and Lee County, the developer completed the largest land preservation buy in Florida history.

Based in West Palm Beach, Kitson & Partners had already developed and managed several master-planned, golf course communities in Florida and in the Northeast. And, from the beginning, the blueprint laid out by Kitson for the Babcock Ranch community has been remarkably consistent with the plan today.

Ultimately, there will be 19,500 residential units accommodating a town of 50,000, with 6 million square feet of commercial space east of Punta Gorda at the Charlotte-Lee county line. In total, half the land area in the village would stay green, including 500 acres of lakes and an extensive trail system.

“All the things we committed to are coming to life right now,” Kitson said in a recent interview.

Indeed, there is the massive 74.5-megawatt “Solar Energy Center” built by Florida Power & Light. Solar panels covering 430 acres keep Babcock Ranch on track to become the world’s first new town where solar energy production exceeds the total energy consumption.

Also, Kitson originally pledged to build more than 1,900 units of affordable housing. The developer said his assurance to provide income-restricted housing remains on track, along with moderately priced single-family homes starting at $189,000.

“There is a need for both,” he said.

Homes are being constructed now, with the first residents expected to move in early next year. Townhouses will also be introduced this year, with market-rate rentals coming in 2018, he said.

“By February of next year, we should have a full range of pricing and product,” Kitson said.

Meanwhile, the downtown district also is taking shape. Already in operation are a restaurant and outdoor outfitter, with a general store set to open shortly.

Furthermore, Babcock Neighborhood School, a K-6 public charter school, debuted this month with more than 150 students.

“Education is absolutely critical to a community,” he said.

Overcoming resistance

To realize a project of this magnitude demands persistence and patience. In order to build the community he envisioned, Kitson would need to clear a number of zoning, permitting and development hurdles, while assuaging a skeptical county commission and public.

Some Charlotte officials doubted the plan’s viability, saying it would create “urban sprawl,” conflict with the county’s comprehensive plan and cost taxpayers millions of dollars more to widen roads than what the developer claimed.

Residents also were split. At a 2006 public hearing, some residents warned the proposed city would compromise the wildlife refuge. Others said the deal was the best, and perhaps last, opportunity to save most of the ranch.

But optimism and momentum ruled the day, as Kitson, in just a one-year span, negotiated his way through a maze of obstacles to accrue the necessary entitlements.

To boost density, Kitson convinced the county to waive its own rules mandating transfer of development rights to increase allowable units from 7,000 to 17,000.

To resolve a major dispute, the developer withdrew a demand for exclusive water rights from the state-owned preserve, guaranteeing Charlotte a future supply of drinking water.

To calm other concerns, Kitson agreed to set aside 800 acres for a “wildlife corridor” and promised to spend up to $208 million for future road improvements.

In fact, the final development agreement addressed 32 of 36 concerns cited by county staff. “It was massively complex,” he said.

Adam Cummings, who served on the Charlotte Commission at the time, was opposed to the project from the start, fearing both the environmental impact and, to a greater degree, the need for costly infrastructure improvements.

“I think Kitson’s plan is a very fragile house of cards,” the commissioner said at the time. “If any card gets knocked out, the whole house can come down.”

And Cummings maintains that perspective today.

“I think Babcock Ranch is the biggest taxpayer rip-off, hands down, that I’ve seen in my 16 years as commissioner,” he said.

The charter school is a good example of the transportation burden being created, he said. Parents will have to drive en masse to drop off and pick up their kids at specified times. Roads, he noted, must be built to handle peak capacity.

And increased traffic will be generated in a broader sense as well. The lack of initial commercial development will force residents to leave town to do their shopping, he said, violating the self -contained community concept that is at the foundation of Babcock Ranch.

“That model does not work,” he said. “It will lead to the same old urban sprawl.”

Nonetheless, in April 2006, Cummings was the lone vote against granting a “large scale” amendment to the county’s comprehensive growth plan, allowing Babcock Ranch to move forward.

A few months later, the state signed off on its commitment and the deal was done. Although an enduring recession would delay construction, the project finally broke ground in 2016.

Now, the lingering questions will be answered. Can environmental stewardship be truly integrated with enormous expansion? And did the Babcock family bet on the right buyer for their land, and their legacy?

Former staff writer Greg Martin contributed to this report.

Pulte Homes Summerwood model

Babcock Ranch is located east of Punta Gorda near where Charlotte and Lee counties intersect.

Homes By Towne is building four spec homes in Babcock Ranch.

Pulte Homes Springview model

Solar-powered transportation on Babcock Ranch.

Pulte Homes Arbordale model