Green Dreams in Florida
Several ambitious developments that stalled during the downturn are moving forward slowly.
Babcock Preserve [Photo: Carlton Ward Jr.]
When the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott weakened the state Department of Community Affairs earlier this year, many smart-growth advocates worried about the impact on large-scale development projects that the agency kept in check. Who will avert urban sprawl, traffic gridlock and other problems DCA was designed to guard against?
Professor Pierce Jones, director of the University of Florida's Program for Resource Efficient Communities who advises some of the state's largest developers on how to use resources efficiently, predicts banks will step in where regulation has weakened. Recently, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta asked Jones to speak about the long-term cost savings in green developments, including lower utility, transportation and landscape-maintenance fees. Savings on community development district taxes and homeowners association fees alone are about $2,000 a year per household compared with traditional development costs, Jones estimates.
"What banker in their right mind is going to back the sprawling communities with the higher taxes?" Jones asks. "When the bankers are the ones making developers answer the questions, then all of a sudden the claim that 'we can't afford to build sustainable or green' is turned on its head. We can't afford not to."
While lawmakers blamed DCA for holding up some of Florida's newest developments, the economic downturn is clearly the biggest factor. Here are some green developments that are moving forward:
» Babcock Ranch: Developers Syd Kitson & Partners aim to make their 17,000-acre development near Fort Myers the first solar-powered community in the nation. The nearly 20,000-home development will be surrounded by the 73,000-acre Babcock Preserve. Its energy plan includes a communitywide smart-grid system; 75-megawatt on-site solar photovoltaic facility; and electric-vehicle charging stations throughout. Babcock is working with utility FPL to build the solar plant. But the utility says it needs to be able to recover costs for such a project because photovoltaic is still costlier than traditional sources, including natural gas or coal. The Legislature this year declined to approve the cost recovery, which is opposed by smaller alternative-energy firms who argue it would hurt them and stand in the way of decentralized energy solutions. Developers hope to break ground in 2012.
Babcock Ranch, surrounded by a 73,000-acre preserve, wants to be the first all-solar community in the U.S. [Rendering: Babcock Ranch]
» Restoration: Developers of the 5,000-acre project in Edgewater in southeast Volusia County went back to the drawing board five years ago after facing opposition from regional planners. They've thrown out the golf course. They've cut the number of roads in half. They've clustered homes, created innovative energy and water plans and set aside 75% of the acreage for preserved forest and wetlands. The Florida Cabinet signed off on the project earlier this year. Connecticut-based developer G.S. Florida is working on its local and regional permits.
» Farmton: Chicago-based Miami Corp. has owned the 59,000-acre Farmton Tree Farm that straddles Volusia and Brevard counties west of Interstate 95 since the 1920s. For the past six years, the company has worked with environmental organizations and the two counties on a long-term plan for sustainable development. It identifies 46,000 acres of "must-save places" that will be conserved in perpetuity at no cost to taxpayers. After rejecting the project previously, the DCA signed off on both counties' comp-plan amendments for the area earlier this year. But some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are still fighting the development as sprawl. The next step is the Division of Administrative Hearings.
» Hobe Grove: When Vero Beach-based Becker Holding submitted its DRI for the 3,000-acre Hobe Grove project west of Hobe Sound, Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council Executive Director Michael Busha called it "one of the most complete and coherent DRI master plan series ever submitted." The Becker family wants to build 4,300 homes and a biotech center on land where it has long farmed citrus. But the family also wants to see a significant urban-agriculture element. Community gardens throughout the project will allow residents to grow their own food on small plots. "It's an experiment, but we think we can do it," says Ernie Cox of Family Lands Remembered, a rural-lands consulting firm. "The family has the ability and the commitment."
Plum Creek owns 70,000 acres in Alachua County. Company executives working on a future master plan for the acreage say that most of it could wind up in conservation easements. [Photo: Jon M. Fletcher]