In 2006, Syd Kitson, a retired professional football player, purchased the former Babcock Ranch — all 91,000 acres of it. Located about 12 miles northeast of Fort Myers, the land was far enough for the Gulf of Mexico to be reasonably well protected from the powerful storms and hurricanes that happen frequently along Florida’s Gulf coast. Kitson’s vision was to create the most resilient and sustainable community in all of Florida — a daunting task considering how often that peninsular of land is battered by extreme weather events.
The first thing Kitson did was sell 73,000 acres to the state of Florida for a wildlife preserve. The second thing he did was donate 440 acres to Florida Power & Light to be used to build a solar power plant. Today there are thousands of homes in Babcock Ranch, which calls itself “America’s first solar powered town.” The 700,000 solar panels generate more electricity than the community needs and the excess goes to power other FPL customers.
In 2015, when the time the first homes were going up in the community, the cost of battery storage was too high so Kitson was content to let the sun power the town as much as possible and to purchase electricity at the going rate when needed. “The people here pay the exact same amount that everybody else pays in the Florida Power and Light network,” he says. “Clearly, if you have a number of cloudy days in a row, it will impact the efficiency and the available electricity that comes from the solar field, but this is Florida, and if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes.”
Today, the economics of storage has changed dramatically, which has led FPL to install battery storage units as part of the solar power plant. It’s awfully convenient to have a microgrid right next door when severe weather pays a call on your community. FPL is also heavily invested in building community solar facilities in Florida.
The community itself is a model for how to integrate sustainability and resiliency into the planning process. The streets are designed to flood so the houses and town buildings don’t. Native landscaping along roads helps control storm water. Power and internet lines are buried to avoid wind damage. In addition, all structures are in compliance with Florida’s latest building codes, which are some of the most robust in the nation.
“We want to be the most sustainable new town in the United States,” Kitson told CBS News. “We had the advantage of a green field, a blank sheet of paper. When you have a blank sheet of paper like this, you really can do it right from the beginning.”
Hurricane Ian Is First Real Test For Babcock Ranch
When Hurricane Ian passed over Babcock Ranch last week with winds in excess of 100 mph, it was the first real test for all the planning that went into making the community resilient. Yes, there were a few trees downed and some roof shingles torn off. But while 2.6 million Floridians were without power — and many of those without water — the community never lost electricity and became a refuge for other area residents who were displaced from their homes.
“We have proof of the case now because [the hurricane] came right over us,” Nancy Chorpenning, a 68-year-old Babcock Ranch resident, told CNN. “We have water, electricity, internet — and we may be the only people in Southwest Florida who are that fortunate.”
Anthony Grande moved to Babcock Ranch several years ago after seeing what more frequent storms were doing to the Fort Meyers area. He said Ian came through southwest Florida “like a freight train,” but he wasn’t afraid that he would lose everything in a storm, like he was when he lived in Fort Myers. “We’re very, very blessed and fortunate to not be experiencing what they’re experiencing now in Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach,” Grande said. “In the times that we’re living in right now with climate change, the beach is not the place to live or have a business. It’s not what it was 20 or 25 years ago,. The storms are getting bigger and bigger, and it’s no surprise, because the warnings have all been there,” he added. “I think Babcock Ranch’s future has gotten even brighter.”
“It’s a great case study to show that it can be done right, if you build in the right place and do it the right way,” said Lisa Hall, a spokesperson for Kitson, who also lives in Babcock Ranch. “Throughout all this, there’s just so many people saying, ‘it worked, that this was the vision, this is the reason we moved here,’” Hall told CNN. Kitson himself stayed in the community during the storm. According to Hall, he said, “where else would I be? We built it to be resilient and as much as you plan and think you’ve done the right thing, you don’t know until you put it to the test.”
Haris Alibašić, a professor at the University of West Florida, tells Good.com, “This community is a unique opportunity to really implement sustainable technology in a practical way. Cities around the world have started adopting 100% renewable energy targets, but it’s both intriguing and encouraging to see this happening from a developer.”
Why Did Punta Gorda Survive Ian?
Just a few miles north of Fort Myers lies the city of Punta Gorda. Like much of the Florida Gulf Coast, it also took the brunt of Hurricane Ian, but unlike most neighboring communities, it survived relatively unscathed. Why? According to the Washington Post, after being heavily damaged by Hurricane Charley in 2004, the city enacted one of the most stringent building codes in Florida.
“It’s a demonstration that updated building codes really work,” said Nicholas Rajkovich, an associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, who specializes in adapting buildings to a changing climate. “Buildings built to newer codes consistently have fared better during hurricanes and other storms than older homes.”
“Charley was almost like a spring cleaning event,” said Joe Schortz, who lives in Punta Gorda and owns a local construction company. “Charley destroyed a lot of the older homes with the winds.” Many of the homes and buildings were reconstructed to modernized building codes that were improved again in 2007. And in the aftermath of Ian, the buildings left still standing seemed to have at least one thing in common. “Everything with a 2007 code and beyond pretty much was fine,” Schortz said.
Building Codes & Resiliency
Updated building codes have stricter requirements about “structural load continuity,” things like ensuring a roof is well connected to walls and walls are well connected to the foundation, Rajkovich said. You might think such things are elementary, but until Andrew swept through South Florida in 1992. Until that point, many roofs just lay on the surrounding walls. A great many of them landed in the next county thanks to Andrew. Rajkovich and other experts said updating codes and rebuilding in a way that reflects those more extreme weather conditions can help communities adapt and become more resilient.
“Our built environment protects us as human beings,” Baughman McLeod said. “The stronger that built environment is against the winds and the water and the rain, the more we survive and the more protected our economic assets are. Building codes are one of the strongest ways that government can protect people and property from climate-driven hurricanes.”
The Biden administration has launched a National Initiative to Advance Building Codes, which, in part, provides incentives for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to update their standards and modernizes the way federal buildings are constructed. David Hayes, a special assistant to the president for climate policy, told the press last week only 30% of communities in the United States have adopted modern building codes.
“It’s just a plain old practical thing, but it’s essential. When you build back now after this crisis, will the infrastructure be able to withstand the next Ian that’s coming along? That question has not been asked in previous administrations. It’s being asked and answered in this one.”
While Rajkovich said the importance of modernizing building codes can’t be overstated, he and other experts noted that how you rebuild is only one way to improve resilience. It’s also important, he said, to consider whether it’s safe to stay in vulnerable areas and to bolster natural coastal protection such as wetlands and mangroves, among other things. “This isn’t just a Florida issue. This is a national issue. Thinking about a national strategy for resilience is really important for this country to be able to adapt to climate change.”
Any national strategy could learn a lot of lessons from Syd Kitson and his plans to make Babcock Ranch one of the most resilient communities in Florida.
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