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Florida's new environmentalists: The real estate industry?

More and more often, those leading the charge for the state to become more environmentally friendly are the people who were once seen as villains.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 5:00 a.m. March 10, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Babcock Ranch is an 18,000-acre planned community of energy-efficient homes.
Babcock Ranch is an 18,000-acre planned community of energy-efficient homes.
Photo by Steffania Pifferi
  • Commercial Real Estate
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Since the first historians began writing about Florida, many in real estate have been cast as the environmental villains. Greedy landowners, unscrupulous developers, swindlers selling swampland. The list goes on.

If we’re honest with ourselves, that portrayal of the industry is not necessarily, nor always, a caricature. Stereotypes, after all, exist for a reason.

From the start, there were those who would not hesitate to pave over paradise to put up a shopping center or condos or a housing development if it lined their pockets. What mattered was more, more, more.

But as Florida celebrates its 178th birthday in March, something interesting is happening in the state’s real estate industry. That industry, which for more than a century was blamed — rightly or wrongly — for wreaking havoc on the state’s ecology, is, by some measures, beginning to change.

The new environmentalist, it seems, are the people in real estate.

“I'm a property rights guy. And I feel strongly in somebody's right to do what they want including development,” says Dean Saunders, founder, managing director and senior advisor at SVN Saunders Ralston Dantzler in Lakeland. “But we also need to think about our green infrastructure, because it's a quality of life issue for all of us. Right?”

At real estate conferences, in casual conversations or in announcements, industry powerbrokers statewide are echoing Saunders’ sentiment.

And in a lot of cases, they are backing up their words with action, from using better building materials to deciding what amenities go into the developments. At a recent conference in Lakeland, for example, homebuilders and developers talked about the need to scale back on their environmental impact and use their natural surroundings better when designing neighborhoods. This means adding natural features and cutting down on manmade structures — more preserves and hiking trails and fewer clubhouses.

Other communities are exploring solar power and fitting new houses and apartment units with more energy efficient appliances. Hunters Point in Manatee County, from developer Marshall Gobuty's Pearl Homes, is a new LEED zero community, to cite one example. That means the 86 homes in the community — where prices range between $1.49 and $1.89 million — generate more power than is consumed.

Another example comes in Naples, where London Bay Homes recently completed its first ever solar-powered home. The 6,000-square-foot estate, in the The Estuary at Grey Oaks, incorporates advanced and emerging technologies, according to a statement. That includes energy-storing Tesla Powerwalls in lieu of a generator.

One reason for this change in attitude is in large part driven by a better understanding of the impact development has on the world around it and an awareness of what may happen if changes aren’t made. There's also another important, and parallel, reason: a demand in some corners from customers for homes and businesses that are more environmentally-friendly. 

A better life

There is also what Saunders calls the quality of life issue.

Florida has long sold itself as a place to come to for beaches and sunshine, palm trees and blue skies that don’t seem to end, lakes and swamps. The reason people come here is not to live in crowded urban neighborhoods or overbuilt suburbs similar to what they are escaping from, but to be able to go on long walks in November or to head to the beach in December or to go fishing in the Gulf of Mexico in January.

Many of these same people will end up in crowded neighborhoods or overbuilt suburbs, but it is the quality of life Florida affords that makes it bearable.

Those in real estate are no different. The difference of late, with the Lakeland conference and London Bay's solar-powered home two disparte examples, is some developers say they are prioritizing the idea of preserving what makes Florida different in a way they had not done before.

Jared Meyers, founder and chairman of St. Petersburg-based Salt Palm Development, a socially conscious developer of sustainable housing, is first in line for the attitude shift. “Making money while causing harm never feels good and since more information is regularly being shared about the consequences of development without care for the impact it has on people and the planet, more developers and future homeowners are making changes to adjust to a more values-aligned approach,” he says 

Meyers has seen firsthand the change in attitudes. But transforming awareness into action is not always simple. And how difficult the change in businesses practices will be depends on how environmentally friendly the developer’s current practices are.

For some developers, the changes will be minor and inexpensive. Yet those who aren’t environmentally friendly now may face larger and costlier adjustments.

Those in the second category may need to be selective about which impacts are the most appropriate to address at the beginning. And just because some of the work might be cost prohibitive, it doesn’t mean others are not achievable, Meyers says. 

“What are we doing if we are not acting as stewards? Developing a project is developing the future for that land, that project, that community,” Meyers says. “Having anything other than a stewardship mindset means you are the wrong person to be creating a development.”

Opposite views

But not everyone sees the changes or believes developers are making a big difference yet.

Cris Costello, senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club in Osprey, Sarasota County, says developers installing features like low flow toilets and showerheads, LED lighting and solar panels is good for conservation. But that, she says, does not address the bigger issue.

She says the problem in Florida is that too much land is already paved over and developed. Continuing to add to that, regardless of how well intentioned a builder or developer is or how big the need is, will only makes things worse, she says. 

If a developer is serious about making a real long-term impact on the environment, they will chose to build infill developments within current boundaries.

“Anything outside of that is dangerous,” Costello says. “Free land. Wild land. Undeveloped land is flood attenuation. Every piece of land that we get rid of, the likelihood of floods increases. The less undisturbed land that we have, the more floods we have."

Whatever path those in the industry take, whether it be wholesale adoption of environmental practices or taking small steps to curb their impact, the reality is that in order to change the century-long narrative every step forward is likely going to meet with some resistance, some skepticism and a few steps back.

Case in point is Babcock Ranch, which straddles the border between Lee and Charlotte counties. 

Environmentalists, developers and observers alike praise the 18,000-acre planned community with an 870-acre solar panel farm powering it and its own water reclamation facility for what it has accomplished. Many see Babcock Ranch as the future, a solution that shows you can address both the growing need for housing and the need to be environmental stewards.

But Babcock Ranch, Costello counters, was built on conservation land that should have been spared from development. (The entire property that encompsses Babcock Ranch is more than 91,000 acres; a large portion will not be built on.) And despite that “it was done right," she says, "certainly more right than most developments,” it should have been built elsewhere and “is a really bad example of developing in what was wild land, wild habitat.”

All that is to say, if the shining example of how eco-friendly development should be done is not good enough, where does that leave developers who are looking to do the right thing from an environmental perspective? Or, maybe, the better question is, should an effort to do what’s right for the environment be scrapped because it fails to be perfect?

The answers to both those questions can only be answered by those in the industry, those who are investing the time, energy and money and looking to balance capitalism with economic stewardship.

In other words, as Meyers says, if the developer is aware of how to be more eco-friendly then it’s just time to get to work and walk the talk.



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the deputy managing editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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