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Babcock Ranch Reboot

Developer Syd Kitson forges ahead with construction of a future town as Southwest Florida’s real estate market rebounds.

OUT ON THE VERY EDGE OF DEVELOPED SOUTHWEST FLORIDA, SYD KITSON IS BUILDING SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN. He started construction in earnest this year on Babcock Ranch, a 19,500-home town being built from scratch on the Lee/Charlotte county line. Plans include super-fast Internet, 50 miles of wilderness trails, and a 75-megawatt solar array producing all the daytime electricity. “I want Babcock Ranch to be known as the first solar-powered town in America,” says Kitson, chairman and CEO of Palm Beach Gardens-based Kitson & Partners, which recently announced detailed plans to start selling homes early next year. Kitson bought the property in 2006 from the Babcock family in a deal that also created an adjacent 73,000-acre nature preserve now under state ownership. He wants the project’s 17,000 acres to be a rare example of full-on sustainability, with agriculture, good jobs and scientific research by Florida Gulf Coast University on site.

He’s signed up six preferred builders that will be selling homes across a wide price range: from the high $200,000s to about $500,000 in the first neighborhood. But Kitson’s also keenly aware that Babcock is no slam-dunk easy sell even in today’s vibrant residential real estate market. Its very novelty, not to mention its sheer size and relative isolation, makes Babcock’s sales appeal something of an unknown quantity. This is no gated Naples golf course community with a seemingly unlimited supply of affluent baby boomers lining up to buy.

“We’re actually trying to understand it ourselves,” though early signs are that the project could have a broad market, Kitson says. “We’ve had just as many younger people as empty nesters contacting us, asking us what’s going on and what’s going to be provided.” Not all the interest is from retirees or pre-retirees in Southwest Florida, he said. Some are from people “who have been following Babcock and live in other parts of the country and are looking for a place like Babcock Ranch.” He expects that the project’s high-speed Internet, along with shared office space within walking distance of the first homes, will attract people who are able to work from anywhere and don’t mind Babcock’s relative isolation.

STILL, KITSON'S BOLD plan is not without its skeptics. “He doesn’t have a rabbit in his hat,” says Naples-based real estate broker Ross MacIntosh. “I don’t know what he’s doing. As a professional in the field of sales of developable land to builders and developers, I don’t get it.” So far, McIntosh says, there isn’t much to indicate a market for home sales in the largely empty stretch of eastern Lee and Charlotte counties north of the Caloosahatchee River. But, he says, Kitson is known for spotting the opportunity to make a profit where others don’t see it. “He worked magic on Talis Park,” MacIntosh says. “It would surprise me not in the least if he were to do the same thing at Babcock.”

Kitson bought Talis Park, an unfinished former WCI Communities golf course community in Collier County, for $31 million in 2011 at the bottom of the real estate market. Bonita Springs-based WCI had spent $220 million in planning and infrastructure. Now more than half the development’s 620 homes have been sold and Kitson says the rest are “going quickly.”

But Talis Park was a traditional Naples project bought at the right time for the right price, and Babcock is much more complicated proposition.

Jim Green, a real estate broker who’s also a member of the Lee County Housing Authority and chairman of the county Local Planning Agency, says distance is an issue but that only time will tell. “I still struggle with [Kitson’s] view of the market and what’s going to draw people to Babcock,” Green says. “You’re going to have to make it a destination in and of itself.”

On the other hand, big, comprehensively designed developments like Babcock have their supporters. “I think people will be surprised to see there is a market for this kind of community,” said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit, Washington D.C.-based research group that promotes responsible land use. Sustainability sells, he says, but creating a genuinely sustainable community is no easy task.

“Sustainability is about more than technology, energy efficiency, and wind turbines,” McMahon says. “These are places that have a respect for the land.”

Successful sustainable communities also incorporate ideas from the New Urbanism school of planning, he says: Building communities around public spaces and using architecture that make it easy for people to explore their surroundings on foot and get to know their neighbors.

John Hillman, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Kitson & Partners, says it’s important to create those values from the beginning at Babcock. “It’s really important to get downtown right; to get the first neighborhood right.”

ALONG THOSE LINES, all the homes in the first neighborhood will be within a quarter mile of downtown, he says. “The farthest walk will be five minutes. Downtown is actually accessible, instead of having to get in your car.”

The community’s architectural standards will require features such as front porches, to encourage a sense of community, Hillman goes on to say. “It’s nothing new, it actually goes back to the old Florida cracker traditions you can still see in towns like Wauchula and Arcadia.”

So far about 600 people have signed up on Babcock’s website to learn more about the community, according to Hillman. A majority of those are already in Southwest Florida. At the moment, demographics for those potential customers look a lot like those of a traditional planned community. “It’s definitely a 50- to 70-year-old crowd right now,” Hillman says. “The retirees and second home buyers, they’re always in the market and looking for things.”

However, Kitson says, to reach its full potential, Babcock needs younger people as well, and that means jobs and education. “If you don’t have those things, you’re not going to have young families come in.” The development is zoned for 6 million square feet of commercial space where Kitson hopes to attract companies that will provide employment. He hopes to announce the first ones over the next couple of months. For entrepreneurs, one of the first downtown buildings will include shared work space where people can start up businesses, a feature Kitson says he expects will appeal to retirees who still want to keep a hand in. “They want to stay in the game, and this is an opportunity to do that.”

Babcock will also have its own kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school as well as a partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University for scientific research. Some FGCU classes may be held at Babcock.

The long-term prospects for Babcock may be uncertain as it prepares to launch, but Urban Land Institute’s McMahon says similar projects in Florida have done well. “I would suggest that communities like Seaside and Celebration were also out in the middle of nowhere when they were first built.” But both have thrived, he says, referring to developments near Panama City and near Orlando, respectively, that have similar themes of sustainability.

In the long run, it’s up to the Kitson team to make the case that Babcock can succeed on its own terms. “We know we have to prove ourselves,” says Hillman. “You have to create a reason to live here.”

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