When Syd Kitson first talked about his ambitious plans for Babcock Ranch back in 2005, the concept of creating America’s first solar-powered town was considered a bit out there.
“I talked about sustainability and creating this town that is environmentally responsible and had all latest technology,” says Kitson, chairman and CEO of real estate company Kitson & Partners. “And people had no idea what I was talking about. The word sustainability hadn’t really hit the mainstream; people just really weren’t focused on that in 2005. But fast-forward to today, and it’s all anyone is talking about. We were a part of that evolution of really embracing something that I think is becoming more commonplace today.”
Staying ahead of the curve is always the goal for Kitson. “We believe deeply in innovation,” he says. “We try not to do what everybody else is doing. We go down the path that may be the more difficult path; we don’t follow the path of least resistance. We’re looking for ways to change the world, and we think we can do that by building a new town that is the most sustainable town that’s ever been created.”
It’s not necessary hyperbole when Kitson, 62, talks about changing the world. A Nee Jersey native, he’s beat the odds before, going back to his first career professional football: he played offensive line for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys from 1981-1984. He got into real estate in 1986, and has served on numerous statewide board and organizations, founding Palm Beach Gardens-based Kitson & Partners in 1992.
It’s taken a bit longer than expected for Kitson’s vision to come to life. The purchase of 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch was completed in 2006, shortly after which 73,000 acres within Charlotte and Lee Counties were sold back to the State of Florida for preservation. But the recession delayed the development of the rest of that land. Kitson says while getting started sooner was of course the original objective, the pause provided extra time to verify and refine plans.
Since work first began in 2015, Babcock Ranch has been steadily growing. Planned to ultimately include 19,500 homes and six million square feet of commercial space, the community has sold more than 1,000 homes so far and is currently selling 15 to 20-plus homes a week. A Publix-anchored shopping center is opening soon, and an apartment complex and new high school are also entering the mix.
“Babcock is a town,” says Kitson. “We have several thousand people living here already, and with the pace we’re going, we’re well ahead of plan.”
Anyone who’s been watching to see if Kitson could pull off his vision should be convinced by now. “It’s easy to talk about things, but it’s another thing to actually do it,” he says. “I don’t think anyone can say, when they look at Babcock Ranch and see what we’ve done here, that we haven’t fulfilled the promise of what Babcock Ranch is all about. It’s judge me on my actions and not my words….Everything we said we were going to do, we’ve done.”
He’s also inspiring others to follow his lead, fielding inquiries from developers nationwide interested in learning his playbook. “The greatest compliment you can receive is when someone copies what you’re doing,” he says. “That is certainly happening, and it’s great to see.”
One myth constantly works to dispel is it’s more expensive to create a sustainable community. “Probably one of the biggest fallacies is that to be environmentally responsible it costs money, and it just simply is not true,” he says. “It’s just about being very thoughtful and doing the work upfront. If you do that as a developer, you’re going to find that it doesn’t cost more. And I think economically what you find is the returns on any investment you make are pretty terrific.”
Kitson realizes that change can be hard for people. But it’s reached the point where the status quo isn’t an option anymore. “Climate change isn’t something that is made up,” he says. “It’s happening; the science tells us that….As a developer, we create impacts, so we need to mitigate those impacts. And I think it’s our responsibility to step forward and say we don’t need the government to tell us we have to do this. We should just do it because it’s the right thing to do. And people are starting to realize it’s important to our future.”
His advice for others hoping to lead and inspire change? “Don’t get discouraged,” says Kitson. “If you believe in it and have a passion for it and know it’s the right thing, don’t let others discourage you from doing it.”