A Florida developer unveiled plans today to build the nation's first solar-powered city – a cluster of homes, offices and factories less than 20 miles from Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast.
"Babcock Ranch" would be built on 17,000 acres in Charlotte and Lee counties, with more than half of the land set aside for nature preserves, agriculture and other open space. Florida Power & Light Co. would build a 75-megawatt solar photovoltaic array to supply electricity to the development's 6 million square feet of residential, industrial and retail buildings.
The big question: If you build it in this economy, will buyers come?
Developer Syd Kitson is betting heavily that he is going to attract investors, businesses and 45,000 residents to his $2 billion ranch community, which he plans to start building next year. He is promising 19,500 homes, 20,000 permanent jobs, open spaces and plenty of carbon-free megawatts.
"Solar is just the first step," Kitson told reporters in a Washington news conference today. "Babcock Ranch will be a true living laboratory of the new-energy economy ... where innovative companies can design, build and use the renewable and efficient technologies that customers across the country and around the globe will need."
Three years ago, Florida agreed to buy 73,000 surrounding acres from Kitson's company, Kitson & Partners, and preserve the land for hunting, camping, hiking and other recreation. The land deal still ranks as the largest of its kind in state history, conservationists say.
"The best thing you can say about Babcock Ranch is 'diversity,'" said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's advocacy director. "It represents virtually every inland freshwater and upland habitat you have in the state."
Charles Pattison, president of the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Florida, also applauded the Babcock Ranch plan. Kitson bought the land in 2005 from a family that had used it for timber and ranching since the early 20th century.
"The initial fear was the property would be purchased and then parceled out," he said. "Hopefully, this deal will be a forerunner of things to come."
But the recession complicates conservation, Pattison conceded.
Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has been forced to scale back a plan to buy land in the Everglades Agricultural Area from U.S. Sugar Corp. The South Florida Water Management District wants to convert the farms to reservoirs and stormwater-treatment marshes for the long-range restoration of the Everglades.
Facing growing costs and shrinking tax revenue, the Florida Legislature is now threatening to cut funding this year for the state's Forever Florida program, which uses fees from real estate transactions to conserve ecologically important land.
Crist has said he supports continuing funding for the program, as does 67 percent of Floridians who responded to a recent poll conducted by the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups.
"The paradox down here is, if you don't grow, you don't get money for conservation," Pattison said.