Sitting on a 7,000-hectare stretch of land in southwest Florida, Babcock Ranch has made a name for itself as the first solar-powered town in the United States. Its power comes from nearly 700,000 solar panels that supply energy to more than 2,000 homes and other buildings, including a health center and schools.
Syd Kitson, founder of the planned community, envisioned an environmentally friendly energy-efficient city. His dream became a reality in 2018.
"I believe deeply in respecting the environment and wanted to prove that you could build this new city and work hand-in-hand with the environment," said Kitson, CEO of the real estate firm Kitson & Partners. "Our water management system is based around natural floodways. We also have 7,000 hectares we are preserving."
The preserve protects natural habitats, scenic landscapes and water resources.
"It was just the kind of community my husband and I were looking for," Shannon Treece told VOA. "We liked that the town was built for sustainability, including solar energy."
Today, Babcock Ranch is also known as the town that came out practically unscathed Sept. 28, when Hurricane Ian came roaring through the area bringing record-breaking storm surges and winds over 160 kph.
Nearby Fort Myers by the Gulf of Mexico was devastated.
Babcock Ranch was built on a higher elevation to be above the storm surge. And the buildings were constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Because of that, Shannon Treece and her family are among the 4,600 residents who decided to ride out the storm.
"It was a little scary," she said of being in a hurricane for the first time. "We couldn't see anything since we had blocked all the windows with storm shutters, but we could hear debris hitting the house. I am glad our house held up."
Nancy Chorpenning and her husband also decided to stay put.
"The hurricane sounded like a locomotive coming through. But we never lost our electricity, access to the internet or our water,” she told VOA.
That's because power lines from Babcock Ranch's solar array and utility plants are underground, which shields them from high winds and bad weather, Kitson said.
Huge retaining ponds protect the homes from flooding, and the streets are designed to soak up floodwaters.
When building the town, "we spent a lot of time making sure Babcock Ranch was storm ready," Kitson said. "We had minor damage from Hurricane Ian, like some downed small trees and torn roof shingles, but within a day, we were almost back to normal."
Chorpenning thinks there are lessons to be learned from Babcock Ranch.
"We can be a model for other communities, showing the importance of water management and using solar energy," she said. “We're also showing how neighborhoods can live in concert with nature, partly by requiring that native plant species be planted in the community."
The blueprint for the town is to grow into a much larger city. The developers have their sights set on constructing thousands more of the environmentally friendly homes, which would increase the population to 50,000 residents.
"I hope we are setting a good example for others to follow as we continue to protect the natural environment at the same time," Kitson said.