Environmentalist Takes Steps Towards Actualizing a More Resilient, Sustainable Community in Punta Gorda, Florida


Storm surge is defined as, “an abnormal rise of water, generated by a storm, over and above normal tides.” Storm surge occurs when water is pushed toward the shore by the force of the storm’s winds. A storm surge often combines with the normal tides to create a hurricane storm tide.


To address the issue of storm surge takes planning and strategy. Eight core initiatives— Environment, Health, Education, Energy, Technology, Transportation, Storm Safety and Fun have guided decision making at every stage of development for one Florida community. Babcock Ranch, built 25 to 30 feet above sea level to help mitigate flooding from storm surges, is an entirely sustainable, resilient community.

The “brainchild” of practicing environmentalist, Syd Kitson, Babcock Ranch is America’s first solar-powered town and is resilient by design. The planned community is located within the city of Punta Gorda, Florida with portions in southeastern Charlotte County and northeastern Lee County.

“I am an environmentalist and I have a deep respect for the environment,” said Kitson, owner, and developer of Babcock Ranch. “I like to create things and I wanted to prove that a new city could work hand in hand with nature. Sustainability and resiliency are important to me. In developing the community of Babcock Ranch, I am concerned about fulfilling the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of future generations, while balancing economic growth, environmental care, and social well-being.”

In 2005, activities including master planning, landscape architecture, civil engineering, roadway designing, and permitting services for the 18,000-acre Babcock Ranch community were under way. As a part of the permitting process, an environmental team was responsible for habitat mapping, wetland delineations, listed species surveys, permitting and the design of a 12,704-acre on-site mitigation plan.

“It took three years to secure the water management permit; however, construction of the stormwater management system was initiated in the late fall of 2015,” said Amy Wicks, Civil Engineer, and resident. “Our team provided the master planning and design for the overall project and the majority of the individual villages, including the town center.” The design of the surface water management system includes man-made wetlands, an additional 50% water quality treatment, several storage basins, control structures to enhance the hydroperiods of existing wetlands, and the addition of a conveyance to alleviate flooding of Florida’s State Road 31 adjacent to the community.

“The soil is not conducive to infiltration. We need to be able to move the water. We had to provide opportunity to do that,” said Wicks. “Mimicking the natural system is key. We had to design something that functions in a way nature would respond to it. Rain garden systems drain into lakes and lakes into wetlands.”

Learn about Smart Stormwater Technology

Another mitigation measure employed at Babcock Ranch is smart stormwater technology. Generally, this technology is used to improve water quality and provide storm resilient flood protection. To accomplish this feat, a pond is connected to live weather forecast data and the collected information is used to project water levels and, if necessary, automatically lower its water level before a storm arrives.

While the sun is still shining, a National Stormwater Trust (NST) smart pond can actively drain itself to increase its flood storage capacity while in constant communication with professional stormwater managers who can oversee its performance and even remotely control the pond. The smart stormwater technology installed at Babcock Ranch only has monitoring capabilities, but the smart control structures are expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2023.

“A lot of thought went into planning the community,” said Jennifer Languell, Consulting Civil Engineer, and advocate of green infrastructure. “We have a comprehensive stormwater system, underground utilities, a 75,000 square foot storm shelter with a capacity for up to 2,500 evacuees, eco-friendly green homes that are built to Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC) standards, landscaping utilizing native species, as well as activities in place for energy conservation.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines green building as the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's lifecycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction. This practice expands and complements the classical building design concerns of economy, utility, durability, and comfort. Green building is also known as a sustainable or high-performance building.

According to Florida’s Green Building Coalition, builders who use coalition’s residential green standards reach beyond “minimum requirements” and that’s why certification is an important part of the process.  Independent third-party experts are used to review a home’s construction so that its owners can be assured their home will perform as expected in several critical areas such as:

  • Disaster Mitigation – The ability to withstand natural disaster and pests such as termites
  • Energy Performance – Exceeding code requirements and reducing energy costs
  • Water Conservation – Reducing water usage both inside and outside the home
  • Site Conditions – Minimal site disturbance and utilization of native plants
  • Healthier Home – Use of products and materials to create a healthier interior environment
  • Materials – Use of locally-produced, resource-efficient materials and recycled content

As America’s first solar-powered town, renewable energy is produced at a large scale at Babcock Ranch.  In partnership with Florida Power & Light (FPL) Company, the community houses the electric company’s Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center, and a battery storage system on 870 acres of land. Each solar energy center can generate nearly 75 megawatts (MW) of clean energy, for a combined total of nearly 150 MW equivalent to more than 650,000 solar panels and having the ability to power approximately 30,000 homes.

The 10 MW battery storage system stores power generated by the Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center, ensuring a steady supply of power on partly cloudy days and at night. The energy centers and battery storage system also ensure that the net production of clean, renewable energy at Babcock Ranch exceeds the total amount the town consumes. Solar amenities are found throughout the community to encourage sustainable habits.

The Effects of Hurricane Ian on the Community

On Sept. 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian, packing winds of 150 mph and an 18-foot storm surge, pummeled southwest Florida.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS) Hurricane Ian strengthened into a Category 4 storm before making landfall just south of Punta Gorda. Peak wind speed was recorded at 135 mph in Punta Gorda. Lee County reportedly had a 10-15 feet storm surge. On-site rain gauge measurements ranged from 6 - 11 inches.

Other than some downed small trees, a few lost roof shingles, some damaged screened enclosures and several building signs, the community was unscathed.

“We were storm ready. We require all structures to be rated to withstand winds of up to 160 miles per hour. Every home, every business, street lighting, and traffic signs are all designed to stand up to a Category 3 hurricane.  All development is beyond the reach of coastal storm surge at elevations of 25 feet or more above sea level. Houses are designed with floods in mind. The minimum for every single finished floor is one foot above back-to-back, 25 and 100- year storm events,” said Kitson.

“With all utilities secured underground, we have the ability to bounce back rapidly. Even the landscaping is storm ready, with heavy reliance on native plants that are best suited to withstand the Southwest Florida storm (and fire) cycles. Native plants reduce storm runoff and flooding, improve surface water quality, require less maintenance and irrigation, and help conserve energy.”

Key Takeaways

Planning to reduce risk is key. Several planning guides are available to help communities make their plans.

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