- December 14, 2020
Syd Kitson, the developer behind one of the most ambitious and biggest master-planned communities in Florida, Babcock Ranch, has often spoken about the importance of a sense of place in Florida housing developments. “Florida is full of gated and golf course communities, but we are different,” he says. “We are a town.”
Kitson, 15 years and more than $300 million in bonds and financing into Babcock Ranch, on the border of northeastern Lee and southeastern Charlotte counties, knows this firsthand. Speaking at the 14th annual Sustainable Communities Workshop on Nov. 14 in Sarasota, Kitson told the crowd about what he saw at the Babcock Ranch school one recent afternoon, driving by at dismissal time. “Every kid, all 130 kids, just hopped on their bikes and rode away,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Some of them had fishing poles coming out of their backpacks, some of them went to the park, and some of them went home. It was amazing.”
Kitson and his partners, of course, seek to do more than recreate Normal Rockwell scenes at Babcock Ranch — billed as the most eco-friendly and sustainable town in the country. Kitson’s public update at the workshop included the following nuggets on the project’s progress, mixed with a little rarely-discussed historical context:
• Home sales have been brisk, with some 2,000 lots sold and 500 homes built. There are about 1,000 residents of Babcock Ranch. “All the builders are trying to catch up,” Kitson says.
• The array of solar panels FPL will use to power what’s eventually projected to be 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial space has doubled in size, from 330,000 panels to more than 700,000.
• The question Kitson gets asked the most about Babcock Ranch — which has been featured in media outlets worldwide — is "Why Florida?" “My answer is 1,000 people a day are moving here,” Kitson says. “We need to put these people somewhere, and we need to do it the right way.”
• Although the progress looks nice now, with a school, homes, retail and more, Kitson calls Babcock Ranch an overnight success that took 14 years. He recalled specifically the first year, when, in 2006, he had 12 months to get all the permitting and approvals done, otherwise the deal with the Babcock family would fall apart. It was a flurry of meetings and phone calls, some with planners at 2 a.m. “It was a massively complicated and complex process,” he says.
• Besides "Why Florida," other developers often ask Kitson if they can copy the Babcock Ranch playbook. He says yes. “We want to change the way people develop communities,” he says. “Innovation is hard, but in the end it’s worth it.”