As Hurricane Ian moved toward Florida’s west coast in late September, Amy Wicks drove around this rapidly growing community, trying to figure out what she hadn’t thought of yet. She checked for any debris that might be blocking water runoff paths; she took note of the restored wetlands; she hoped that no alligators had taken up residence in the drain pipes.
Eventually, she returned to her own home here, hunkered down with her husband and three children, and listened as freight train winds moved over Babcock Ranch, a 4-year-old planned community some 20 miles inland from Fort Myers. At that point, she says, she could only hope that the unique storm water system she had designed and monitored over the past decade would be up for the task.
“I had a theory that it would work,” says the civil engineer. “But it wasn’t like there was any case study.”
The storm sat overhead for nearly 10 hours, dumping more than a foot of rain on this swath of old Florida cattle ranches and newly built cul-de-sacs.
By the time it subsided, it was clear that something extraordinary had taken place in Babcock Ranch. Created as a sort of laboratory for green development in Florida, and intentionally designed to survive extreme weather, the town proved remarkably resilient in the face of a Category 4 hurricane.
Unlike surrounding areas, it did not flood, in large part because of Ms. Wicks’ years of planning and her unique stormwater management design that mimicked natural systems rather than fighting them. It did not lose power, thanks not only to its 700,000-panel solar grid and battery backup system, but also to the power line hardening developers undertook with their utility provider, Florida Power and Light. And because Babcock Ranch owns and operates its own water plant, which also survived the storm, it was the only town in Charlotte County that did not go under a boil-water alert.
But this resilience was not just important for Babcock Ranch itself.
Across the state, there is a small but growing effort to build more resilient communities in Florida – an effort to shift a yearslong pattern of rapid development that many here say exacerbates water shortages and other environmental risks. Now, academics, policymakers, advocates, and developers are pointing to how Babcock Ranch fared during the hurricane as proof that in one of the country’s fastest growing states, there are practical reasons to build with greater attention to the environment, climate change, and water management – and that doing so may well prove economically beneficial in the long run.
“I was super happy to see that they came through Hurricane Ian so well,” says Jennison Kipp, a resource economist with the University of Florida and the state coordinator for Sustainable Floridians, a program that works to put sustainability research into practice across the state. “So much [of the challenge] is having proof of concept and trying to sell it to developers.”
Bulldozer, bougainvillea efficiency
For years, building in Florida has followed a pattern. With a constant flow of new homebuyers – an average of nearly 1,000 people move to Florida each day, according to oft-repeated state statistics – developers have tried to acquire as much land as possible, and as quickly as possible. That often means buying up faded ranches or long-ignored swaths of swamps and forest – green-covered lands that must be flattened and cleared to make way for housing developments and roads and shopping centers.
Indeed, to meet building codes that require homes to be graded above street level, developers will typically bulldoze the landscape, dig storm ponds, and then use the fill from those holes to prep building sites, explains Timothee Sallin, co-CEO of Cherrylake, a landscape company working across the Southeast that has become a leader in sustainable design.
Traditionally, developers would replant that denuded landscape with the types of species that outsiders tend to think about when they imagine Florida – green St. Augustine grass, colorful azaleas, draping bougainvillea. The problem, Mr. Sallin says, is that these plants aren’t native to the state, so they require a lot of inputs to stay healthy, such as water, fertilizer, and pesticides. They also struggle to thrive in soil devoid of organic material and nutrients.
“The developers have to mass grade a site to build efficiently and economically,” he says. “The most efficient thing to do is to raze it and bring in fill. But that creates soils that are difficult to work with.”
Meanwhile, because the natural topography of the land has been erased, and the natural water collection systems of wetlands and marshes eliminated, the man-made drainage system becomes the only way to capture water. This can be a problem in some storms – particularly those with unusually heavy rains thanks to climate change.
All of this, says Ms. Kipp, creates a system without resilience, suffering from both too much and too little water.
“The landscapes are on life support,” she says.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the center of the state. The counties around Orlando are some of the fastest growing in the country, according to U.S. Census data, attracting not only the normal collection of sun-seekers from the North, but also what are known inside Florida as “climate refugees” – people from southern coastal cities who have decided to leave rising sea levels and hurricane risks to move north and inland.
That has meant even more rapid development – as well as more extreme water shortages. According to the state’s central water authority, the region will face a 235 million gallon a day shortfall by 2035 unless demand and usage patterns change.
This is one of the reasons why when 27,000 acres of ranch land came up for development just south of Orlando – part of a 300,000 acre swath owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – executives at the development company Tavistock decided to approach the project differently.
“At the end of the day, Florida is at a pivotal point when it comes to development in the state,” says Clint Beaty, senior vice president of operations for Tavistock and the lead on the Sunbridge project, a community that will eventually have some 36,000 homes. “You have to look at development differently.”
To plan Sunbridge, which is about two-thirds the size of Washington, D.C., Mr. Beaty and others at Tavistock coordinated with representatives from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the Sustainable Floridians, and other groups. They came up with a plan to use native landscaping – even eschewing the popular St. Augustine grass for the more drought and heat resilient (although occasionally browner) Bahia grass. They are saving and relocating some of the old live oak trees on the property. All of the new homes will be wired for solar panels and electric vehicle plug-ins, and one model house version boasts Tesla solar shingles and a battery backup system.
Meanwhile, to help move away from fertilizers, scientists have built a living laboratory along a walking path at the development’s community center, called Basecamp, where they are testing the viability of different species of native plants as well as different sorts of compost amendments to soil and the impact on pollinator species. Mr. Beaty is also working to figure out how to arrange for large scale composting and food-waste recycling for the community.
All of this, says Ms. Kipp, marks a substantial change from what usually happens in Florida developments.
She acknowledges that perhaps the best thing for the environment – and for the resilience of the land – would be to never build on those 27,000 acres, to never cull the trees or disturb the topsoil. But she and others involved in sustainable building initiatives here say that for better or worse, development in Florida is going to happen. And the new willingness of developers to balance their work with ecological efforts is a huge win, she says, one that she and others hope will snowball as it proves popular with new residents.
“It’s only been in the last year that we’ve been successful in convincing a large scale developer to adopt different practices,” she says. “We think that there’s a significant chunk of new home buyers who would pay more for a home and community that is walking the talk and offering more connection to nature. With a yard that looks different but it brings more pollinators, and it’s quieter and you don’t have to mow it.”
And when these communities withstand heavier storms and prove more resilient, then, she says, there could be even more consumer demand, and more of a change.
A focus on connection
This is what has happened in Babcock Ranch.
In the wake of the hurricane, interest in the community’s real estate has skyrocketed, with sales this October 49% higher than in October of last year, according to executives there.
Some of this, says Lisa Hall, spokesperson for the development, is because of the way the Babcock Ranch infrastructure survived the storm. But she suspects it is also because of what the community did after Ian, showing a different side of resilience.
Ms. Hall was out of town during the storm, but she was monitoring the community’s Facebook groups. Even in the lead-up to the hurricane, people were looking out for neighbors, and offering shelter to people who lived closer to the coast. When someone posted about a 92-year-old friend on Sanibel Island who needed a place to go, Ms. Hall offered up her own home, unlocking it and controlling the storm shutters from afar.
When the rain stopped, many residents say, the first emotion was relief.
“We had a Cat 4, 5 roll through and I didn’t lose power, I didn’t lose internet,” says Steve Stroup, who recently moved to Babcock Ranch from Southern California with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. “It was like nothing happened. But then you go across the street …”
He shakes his head.
All around Babcock Ranch was disaster. At the local school, staff and students who lived outside of the community lost their homes. The school’s executive director, Shannon Treece, mobilized parents and other instructors to help, setting up food deliveries and carpools. Residents came to the Babcock Ranch field house, which the state had turned into an emergency shelter, bringing bedding and food. And Pastor Matt Shapton, head of The Community Church in Babcock Ranch, a mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, helped organize and transport donations to neighborhoods only miles away, which were still covered with debris weeks later.
“Your heart broke for the people who had damage,” said Ms. Treece.
This sort of community focus, Ms. Hall says, is another aspect of Babcock Ranch’s resilience – one that can’t be separated from the environmental mission.
When developer Syd Kitson purchased the Babcock family’s 91,000 acre ranch in 2006, one of his first moves was to sell 73,000 back to the state for permanent preservation. His goal, Ms. Hall says, was to show that development, community care, and economic viability could all work together. For the next 10 years, the team worked to restore wetlands, create a new water drainage system, and start putting into place the sorts of community facilities – including a store, downtown, and walking paths – that would create a sense of connection.
“Other communities are saying, ‘how do we become that resilient?’” Ms. Hall says. “Syd’s message about this is, you just have to start.”
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