Along a dirt road leading into Florida's past, I stopped to marvel at its future, or at least one vision of it. I was headed to Babcock Ranch Eco-Tours, where visitors pay to tour a working ranch and swampy backwoods on a state-owned preserve, when I pulled over to peer through a chain-link fence onto the edge of a spectacular sea of solar panels - 343,000 to be exact, stretching across some 440 acres.
While the 75-megawatt facility owned by Florida Power & Light attracts no fanfare here, a few miles down State Road 31 its primary customer, Babcock Ranch, has been making headlines for a while. The master-planned development in Southwest Florida, between Punta Gorda and Fort Myers, touts itself as the nation's first solar-powered town. It welcomed its first residents in January and hopes to reach 500 by the end of the year. Eventually, some 50,000 people are expected to live in its neighborhoods, scattered around a Town Center and commercial district.
Babcock Ranch's official grand opening is March 10, nearly a year after its "soft opening," which drew upward of 20,000 visitors. The curious can stop by anytime to visit the information center, tour model homes and even hitch a ride on a self-driving shuttle, which will eventually be part of what is being hailed as the nation's first autonomous shuttle network.
On a springlike day in late December, I checked out both the ranch and the town, which felt a little like hopping from Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Jungle Cruise over to Epcot's Project Tomorrow. It might be tempting to pit the land against the town in a battle of preservation vs. development, but the story is not so simple. For one thing, the land isn't pristine. Babcock Ranch was owned by Edward Babcock, a lumber baron and former Pittsburgh mayor who bought the spread in 1914. In the 1930s, Edward's son, Fred, added vegetable farming and an earlier incarnation of swamp tours.
In 2005, Fred's heirs, who died in 1997, sold their 91,000 acres to Florida developer Syd Kitson, who then sold off 73,000 acres of the land to the state in a $350 million transaction heralded at the time as Florida's biggest-ever preservation deal.
The result was a parcel of conservation land now called Babcock Ranch Preserve, where the tours are held. In 2016, the state turned over much of the land management to Tarpon Blue, a private cattle company, and announced plans to increase recreational offerings. For now, there is the swamp tour - a 1.5-mile walking trail and 16 miles of equestrian trails.
I started my visit at the preserve, which includes a gift shop and rustic restaurant, and hopped aboard a "swamp buggy" (a stripped-down school bus in camouflage paint) to explore some of Florida's flora and fauna. A couple of dozen tourists, from kids to grandparents, bounced along dirt roads and forest floors, and splashed through swamps as our guide and driver, Terry Covert, expertly spotted wildlife among the scrub palmettos, slash pines and sabal palms and broomsedge.
We had traveled only for a couple of minutes before the first shriek-worthy sighting.
"Look at those little alligator hatchlings," Covert said, stopping the bus so we could peer excitedly out the open windows.
A congregation of adorable baby gators piled atop each other in the sun along a swampy area, no doubt with an alert mother nearby.
"We remember those from last year," said my seat neighbor Robert Montgomery of nearby North Port. Montgomery said he brings all his visitors here; on that day, he hosted friends from Michigan.
"I love it here because this is as close to the original Florida as you can get, at least from my childhood," Montgomery, 64, said. "I used to spend all my time in the woods."
As we drove deeper into the ranch, Covert pointed out a bevy of birds, including sandhill cranes, egrets, anhingas, various herons and a red-shouldered hawk. More screams of delight erupted as a pack of feral pigs improbably ran toward the bus.
"Good morning, babies!" Covert hollered while tossing handfuls of corn feed out the open door, which explained their interest in us. Later, some "cracker cattle," a historic breed, occasionally joined the noshing. (The ranch mostly raises Brahman, a popular beef cattle breed.)
At one point, we were let out to walk a short boardwalk over a swamp dotted with cypress trees and knees leading to an enclosure holding a Florida panther. Covert told us how a wild female panther and two kittens recently had been sighted on the ranch - a positive sign for the endangered species.
Back on the bus, we passed a swampy lake teeming with gators sliding across the surface and sunning on the shores, the largest group I'd seen outside of the Everglades.
It hadn't occurred to me that I'd also see gators at Babcock Ranch, the town, but a couple of hours later, walking around Sunset Lake near the main entrance, I spotted a few in the water. I also saw herons, egrets and sandhill cranes, though construction cranes and the beep beep beep of equipment backing up are just as noticeable for now. Ultimately, half the project's 18,000 acres will be reserved for parks, wetlands and lakes.
Babcock Ranch is very much in its infancy, and has that sparse, new-development look. The autonomous shuttle, designed by the transit company Transdev, hadn't yet launched, so I missed out on that fun, but I did visit the Town Center, called Founder's Square. That houses a cluster of commerce, including an outdoors outfitter, upscale general store and cafe, ice-cream shop and Table & Tap, a farm-to-table restaurant situated on the shore of 268-acre Lake Babcock, as well as a waterfront park with band shell. A health and wellness center is scheduled to open in March.
Visitors can stop by the Discovery Center, a hybrid showroom and solar-environmental center filled with displays by developer Kitson & Partners and Florida Power & Light. Throughout the day, "town ambassadors" give touch-screen presentations hawking the development and its rollout of homes and businesses. Visitors also may check out solar and community kiosks on their own.
Houses start in the low $220,000s and go much higher. Lower-priced townhouses, condos and even apartments are in plans. I popped into a couple of luxury model homes, whose builders must meet the minimum level of Florida Green Building Coalition standards. Amenities in the model homes were pretty basic, but Kitson is also adding green and futuristic touches, including high-speed fiber optic cable to every home; underground power lines; native vegetation; sustainable water management; a bike-share system; community garden (which the restaurant has already put into good use); and a growing network of bike paths and walking trails. The town-square area is dotted with lime-green "solar trees" that capture and transmit energy.
The day I visited, a father and his two sons, who live in nearby Fort Myers Shores, were using the bike-share and trails. The children attend school at the Babcock Neighborhood School, a charter school that opened last fall on the square. Even though school was out for the holidays, the three were here to cycle a 1.75-mile path around Sunset Lake. The boys, Gunnar and Magnus Johansson, ages 12 and 11 respectively, were used to talking to visitors, they said.
"People are always coming to see it here and they ask about the area and the school and what it's like," Magnus said. The school, which eventually will expand to 12th grade, offers an environmental curriculum. Last year, the boys were on the winning team of a systemwide solar cook-off contest.
After spending a day at both Babcock Ranches, I was curious to know what conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr. thought of the arrangement. Ward comes from a long line of Florida ranchers and has spent countless hours at Babcock Ranch Preserve for a National Geographic project to use trap cameras to document the presence of panthers.
Ward called the arrangement positive in the long run, a setup that can aid conservation amid the inevitable development.
"Babcock Ranch is really a tale of two Floridas," he told me. "There's the speculative side of 'build it and they will come' and there's the side still allowing for ranching and protecting the wild part of the state."
In this case, they seem to be working together, and that's progress.