America's most sustainable city: A green dream deferred

It sounds like the future. Whirring electric skateboards, the joyous chatter of children in a distant playground and an unusual absence of petrol-powered machinery. It looks like the future, too. Glistening lakes dotting the background, lawns so lush they're mistaken for artwork and an unmistakable reflection from a vast solar farm that doubles as a beacon of unending hope.

The reality, however, is starkly different. The depictions here are mere conceptualizations, and the chore of concocting the most Jetsonized habitat this side of Orbit City is daunting in every sense of the word. %Gallery-192890%

America's most sustainable city A green dream deferred

In 2006, one of the most ambitious community plans in all of Florida rolled into action, with owner Syd Kitson hoping to nearly triple the population of Babcock Ranch by providing some 19,000 homes, a smattering of schools and plenty of retail job opportunities. In essence, he was looking to manufacture an entire city. Three years later, Kitson & Partners announced plans in cooperation with Florida Power & Light to construct the world's largest photovoltaic power station. It would be a facility so enormous it could power homes, schools and scores of businesses across some 17,000 acres of abutting land. The goal was brazenly simple: to not only create "the smartest city," but also the "world's most sustainable city."

Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, publicly dubbed Babcock Ranch "Southwest Florida's City of Tomorrow." But after watching Florida's real estate market collapse and our nation's infatuation with sustainability take a backseat to just getting out of debt, these grand plans have been indefinitely postponed.

A sunny start

DNP America's most sustainable city a green dream deferred

The ambitions are huge -- to build a city where only a few people presently reside.

Nearly three years to the day after the aforesaid trumpet was blown -- and some eight years after Kitson & Partners initially drafted plans for the community -- I blazed a trail to Babcock Ranch's headquarters. It's situated in a quiet region of Punta Gorda that few outside of the Southeast would even associate with a state that markets little other than its powdery white edges.

As the name implies, the destination is actually a working ranch. While I'd been warned that no development had yet taken place, I'd still dreamt up something a little more modern than a renovated 1920s-era barn -- a barn that I had a tough time believing was truly the property's office. Dodging a dusty pickup and a smattering of cattle that seemed unaware of modern traffic urbanities, I took a moment to enjoy the 89-degree heat and the piercing rays delivering it. For miles in either direction, I saw little but swampland, dense forest and plenty of bovines. I drove down a single-lane entrance that ran 2.5 miles. And, most frighteningly, I whisked past a sign that I was certain had advised me to enter at my own peril. It wasn't until Steve Smith greeted me with an outstretched hand that I was sure I'd been led to the right locale. "Welcome to the ranch," he said.

DNP America's most sustainable city a green dream deferred

Don't worry; the natives aren't going to be pushed out if the community comes together.

Smith, general manager and vice president of Babcock Ranch, did little to mask his true self. With denim jeans, a well-worn polo and a gentle drawl in his voice, he began to map out his vision of the ranch. "It means different things to different people," he noted, making reference to the unprecedented public-private partnership that Kitson & Partners struck with the state of Florida in 2005. Essentially, K&P agreed to facilitate the transfer of some 74,000 acres of Florida's interior back to the state for the sole purpose of preservation, while keeping around 18,000 available for use as a planned community. "Community," however, is apt to be viewed as an oversimplification. What's happening here is the foundation of an entire village -- a destination that would include housing, schools and industry. Smith gestured to various colored squares on the latest version of the Babcock Ranch map -- a sheet he affectionately called "the cartoon" -- detailing proposed placements of everything from golf courses to a Field Research Site operated by Florida Gulf Coast University. Just down the road, Babcock Wilderness Adventures plans to expand its tourism initiative, further driving interest from outside visitors.

"It'll be like any town that started out as a cross in the road, and part of our mission is to create a place where people want to work, and want to live," Smith said. Along the northern border of the community sits a 443-acre plot of fallow land, labeled "Solar Field," highlighted on "the cartoon" in blue to differentiate it from the Eco-Lodge to its immediate right and the turf fields below. That sole plot made this planned development different from any other the world has seen to date. Not only was it reserved for a monolithic array of solar panels designed to power an entire city, but it was also for something that proved an ethos. Kitson has been exceptionally bold about what he hopes Babcock Ranch will become: "A new city where innovation will abound -- with planned state-of-the-art infrastructure to assure businesses and residents have full access to emerging technologies for communications, energy, education and transportation." It's a message that seems seared into Smith's mind, but I got the sense it was a far more pragmatic message in the past than it is today.

The cost of clean

DNP America's most sustainable city a green dream deferred

Steve Smith explaining where a proposed groundbreaking would occur.

For three years now, K&P (along with Florida Power & Light) has lobbied local lawmakers to approve the necessary price hikes that would enable a massive capital expenditure to occur. An expenditure that would lead to the outlay of hundreds of thousands of solar panels across an otherwise nondescript tract of land in one of the sunniest spots on Earth. Even when pressed, Smith wouldn't confirm the estimated cost of the 75-megawatt solar array. To give you an idea, the Tinton Falls Solar Farm in New Jersey employs some 85,000 ground-mounted solar panels across 100 acres of land. It cost $80 million to build. Closer to home, a 74-megawatt solar array was planned in 2010 to power some 12,000 homes across Walton County in Florida's panhandle; the $300 million price tag is still waiting to be paid.

Smith confessed that Florida Power & Light, a subsidiary of publicly traded NextEra Energy, would only need to charge each of its customers "pennies" extra per month in order to get the field going, but regulators have been adamantly opposed to increasing rates on a population that's irked by rising unemployment and sinking wages. In fact, the renewable-energy bill that includes the stipulation necessary to kick-start construction has yet to be placed back on the docket for 2013. So, what's a futuristic solar city to do without its solar grid? The same thing every other non-solar city does: turn to coal, oil and gas while it still can.

DNP America's most sustainable city a green dream deferred

Limestone mining (in part) keeps the ranch profitable while development waits.

"As of now, we're hoping to be shovel-ready by early 2014," Smith uttered. "If we can't get the necessary approvals for the solar array by then, we'll use conventional energy until we can have it added."

You see, K&P has been sitting on a huge swath of land for nearly a decade -- land that could be generating a profit as a full-fledged community. As Smith explained, it wasn't sold at a steep loss or simply walked away from during the crash of 2008 due solely to a trio of revenue-generating operations that its new owners were fortunate enough to acquire. Babcock Ranch -- even in its present, undeveloped state -- is bringing in enough cash to pay the bills. Between selling cattle for human consumption, raising turf for homes, parks and golf courses and mining limestone for use in highway construction, there's enough inflow to keep the grander dreams alive.

But it's no longer a critical part of the community. Smith confirmed that the recession "absolutely" impacted the initial concepts, and while the latest drawings haven't nixed the solar field, it's clear from our discussions that this city is happening with or without its token feature. The land's owners have waited for what feels like an eternity to break ground, and as Wall Street celebrates new highs and average home prices begin to rise, K&P senses that the market may finally be ready to accept a new town.

Shadows over solar

DNP America's most sustainable city a green dream deferred

Today: farmland. Tomorrow: An eco-minded community of the future.

One has to wonder, though: will the self-proclaimed City of Tomorrow ever see the dawning of a new day? As Smith sees it, K&P needs "the ideal political climate" in order to breathe life into a near-mythical 75-megawatt solar array. For a nation that's struggling to deal with some $17 trillion in debt, spending on proactive energy solutions is tough to justify. "It's honestly up in the air," Smith said with a hopeful tone. It's the same tone used when mentioning "next year" in the same sentence as "breaking ground," which -- at this stage -- is still far from certain. Crafting a new development in the current economy is no small task, but building a new town based around renewable energy is another challenge entirely. As Smith so aptly put it, "You've got to pay a lot to enjoy unlimited free energy." As it turns out, it seems that even the Sunshine State isn't quite ready to agree to pony up.

Presently, Florida has refused to join states like California and North Carolina in mandating that its utility companies provide at least a small portion of power through clean sources by a predetermined date. Lawmakers squashed former Governor Charlie Crist's 20 by 2020 plan, which would have "required Florida power companies to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020." It's almost impossible to believe. With an abundance of sunlight, near-endless water sources and plenty of coastal wind, one has to wonder why Florida isn't champing at the bit to be a pioneer in the green-energy transition. Nancy Argenziano, former chairwoman of the Florida Public Service Commission, sees the answer as fairly cut and dry: "Money is stopping it. It has nothing to do with what is better for the country or the state."

California, New Jersey and even Colorado have long eclipsed Florida in terms of total megawatt production from solar harvesting, and regrettably, it doesn't appear that the situation is poised to change anytime soon. Despite the opening of the 25-megawatt, $150 million DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center -- a facility that even President Barack Obama flew down to see open in 2009 -- Florida's solar hopes have dimmed significantly since. The aforesaid plant produces enough clean energy to power 3,000 homes out of Florida Power & Light's 4.5 million customers, but given that solar costs around 70 percent more than coal and gas, the math has weighed heavily on planned projects.

Babcock Ranch has the opportunity to shed a different kind of light on the ongoing battle to spend money we don't have on preserving a world that is in no way guaranteed to last. The public-private partnership proves that there is a desire to develop new cities in a sustainable way, but it also magnifies the red tape involved in making the associated parties agree to terms. Should groundbreaking begin with no clear ETA on the construction of a solar field, green advocates will no doubt be disappointed; but in the likely event that it plays out precisely as such, Smith is still hopeful that clean energy will electrify the ranch in time. Whether any other developer will try to replicate such a herculean chore, however, is altogether more doubtful.