Welcome to Babcock Ranch, the solar-powered town
Former ranch in Florida is built as a model future community that will eventually house 20,000 people
By his own admission, Syd Kitson’s 50-game American football career was a modest one; four years with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys before injuries took their toll.
But while sporting fame eluded him, Kitson has made his mark by creating America’s first solar-powered town, Babcock Ranch in Florida, about 270 kilometres north-west of Miami.
The first four pioneers have moved in already and others are arriving thick and fast, with the sales office doing brisk business. In around 20 years, 50,000 people will live in the town. Many will also work there too as Kitson’s vision of an ecological, self-sustaining town becomes a reality.
During the day, power comes from 343,000 solar panels stretched out over 180 hectacres. At night, it is supplemented by electricity from the local grid. That will change once the town develops the capacity to store the electricity the panels generate.The panels have already passed their first major test, holding fast during Hurricane Irma.
Babcock Ranch has already taken delivery of its first solar-powered driverless bus and more are due as the community tries to wean people off individual cars.
Other selling points include ultra-fast internet, 80 kilometres of walking trails and access to 30,000 hectacres of unspoilt conservation land prowled by an array of wildlife including Florida panthers and black bears.
It is not only technology which makes the town unique. Its design is a throwback to the fifties, with houses close to each other — almost obliging people to speak to their neighbours.
Gardens are small, with the bulk of the green space being communal. Post, at the moment, is not delivered to the house but to mailboxes at the bottom of the street.
The land looked very different when Kitson bought it in 2006 from the Babcock family.
The Babcocks had owned the ranch since 1914, trying an array of ventures including limestone mining, cattle farming, ecotourism and hunting.Kitson paid around $500-million for 37,000 hectacres whose main inhabitants were cattle, snakes and alligators. Watermelons were a major cash crop.
As part of the deal, 30,000 hectacres were sold to Florida and Lee County for use as a nature reserve, with the eco-town taking up the balance.
One of the scheme’s supporters was Jeb Bush, who was Florida’s governor when the deal was struck.
“I was overwhelmed by how beautiful the land was,” Kitson said.
“The first time I drove down the road to meet the Babcock family, I was interrupted in my trip by a flock of wild turkey crossing the road and a there was a whole group of deer on my right and in front of me cattle. There were incredibly beautiful birds and wildlife teeming through this property.
“I remember thinking this has to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.”
Kitson, 59, cuts an imposing figure, even though he has shed much of the weight from his playing days.
“We are the third most populous state; we overtook New York. By 2030 we are going to have 26 million living here. For us, we want to prove that development, preservation environmental responsibility can all work together.
“We wanted to do this right from the very beginning and create what was a gated golf course community, which you see here throughout Florida.“Our goal was to create a new town, a place that was a reflection of harking back to what people remember when they were growing up in their own hometowns, but with all the conveniences of modern technology that can make it very special — and open, there are no gates here.”
Normally, the social infrastructure follows the houses, but not at Babcock Ranch, where there is already a school, restaurants and a health centre and gym on the verge of opening.
Michelle Churchill, 51, has taken responsibility for co-ordinating events aimed at luring people from the surrounding area — some of whom may eventually move in. Originally from Birmingham in the United Kingdom, she has ensured the children’s football team wear claret and blue kit — like her beloved Aston Villa.
She sees parallels with the post-war new town movement in the UK. “It’s like recreating Milton Keynes and Telford,” she said.
Richard and Robin Kinley, both 60 and originally from Atlanta, were the first to move in and one of the lakes has been named after them.
“When we came here, the homes were built in the Fifties style, but with modern technology,” Kinley said. “It’s an oasis of social, medical and environmental benefits. We fell in love with the place and signed the papers.”
Jerry and Bethany Hunt, 36 and 30, are planning to move in with their children Peyton and Connor. “We bought here because of the technology and the school is a major plus for us.”
At present they live up the road in Fort Myers. Others considering the move include “snowbirds” who spend the winter in Florida to avoid the ferocity of northern winters.
For the past 12 years, Bob and Joan Pierce have used a motorhome in Arizona as their refuge from chilly Portland, Maine. But the Kitson vision, complete with trails and technology lured them to the sales centre.
“We love the concept. We like the lakes, the trails and the ability to walk.”
Kitson admits it was a gamble, but one which looks as if it will pay off.
“When people do anything brave and bold, people question their sanity, I take some pride in that.” — © The Daily Telegraph