Developer Syd Kitson wanted to create the greenest city on earth on a southwest Florida cattle ranch. Six years later, his survival shows the importance of another kind of green.
Kitson, however, kept thinking big. In 2009, he announced Florida Power & Light would by year-end begin the world’s then-largest solar photovoltaic plant, 75 MW, on 400 acres at the ranch. Babcock would be the first solar-powered city. Kitson said he believed green-minded employers, innovators and researchers would flock to Babcock, with its solar plant, state-of-the-art smart grid and electric vehicle charging stations, as a living laboratory.
FPL never broke ground, however. Its commitment hinged on the Florida Legislature authorizing it to go against the usual practice of building the lowest-cost alternative.
Buck Martinez, senior director of project development for FPL, says perceptions of higher cost are misplaced because a solar plant, while pricier to build, has no fuel costs, no susceptibility to rising fuel prices and, unlike nuclear and fossil fuel plants, doesn’t require water. “We still believe in Babcock. It would attract a lot of businesses to the state at a time when we can really use it,” says Martinez, who adds the plant could be built in about a year if the Legislature gives FPL what it wants.
Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club senior organizing manager for Florida, says he hopes Kitson doesn’t abandon solar. “FP&L should move forward on that project whether or not they get cost recovery,” Jackalone says.
While Kitson publicly kept the focus on Babcock’s promise, privately he faced a cash jam. A $100-million securitized note on the property was coming due in 2011. The project would be nowhere near generating cash to cover it and, with the value of Babcock down along with the rest of real estate, refinancing was problematic. Kitson’s firm, thanks to its moneyed investor Evergreen, bought out Morgan Stanley’s stake in Babcock and paid $48.2 million for the $100-million note. The debt holders ate the $51.8 million loss.
“We closed (in 2006), and a year later this country had fallen into one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression and to still be in a position to be able to go forward with this is something I’m very proud of and have a lot of people to thank for that,” Kitson says.
Back at the ranch, meanwhile, there’s no sign of going forward. Kitson continues to mine limestone, which he sells to road contractors, and to farm sod. The Charlotte and Lee new-home markets are off the bottom but haven’t returned to the pre-bust days, according to real estate firm Metrostudy. Recent quarterly home starts were off by 11%. But, says Tony Polito, director of Metrostudy’s Tampa office, “There is certainly an appetite for a well-conceived, well-positioned type mega-community down there as long as they can support it with marketing dollars.”
Kitson says that with Babcock’s new financial solidity, he will have enough money to sustain development when it starts. At 54 and looking every bit the trim, retired athlete at 6-foot-4, Kitson says he is more comfortable looking to the future than reliving the past. Design work for Babcock is being refined, he says. He will go forward without FPL’s solar if need be. The Babcock public school, once slated for the periphery of the downtown, now will be in the middle. He foresees more empty nesters than originally envisioned “because that is a market that is here today.” Housing types will be “much more relevant,” Kitson says. He says he hopes to begin developing next year. Eighteen months later, the first land would be ready for home construction.
“Things have changed,” he says. “Times have changed — not the sustainable part. That hasn’t changed. That is still extremely relevant and even more relevant in today’s world than when we first started. The integration of Babcock Ranch, of the community, with the environment is still paramount to us.”