I live and work in Charlotte County, Florida. It’s a small county on the southwest gulf coast that has some big things happening. In the east of the county, a private developer is building a city of the future called Babcock Ranch. This doesn’t happen without a great deal of collaboration and partnership with the local government. This is where me and my department comes in.
This project has made us think about how we handle something of this scope and size. Before I get into specifics, I want to tell you a little about the project itself.
Babcock Ranch was created following the single largest purchase of land in Florida’s history. In 2005, the developer purchased a 90,000 acre privately owned working ranch. One the same day, they turned around and sold 72,000 acres to the State of Florida to be preserved as a state park. This land was made up of some of the most beautiful natural habitat Florida has to offer – plus thousands of alligators!
With the remaining acreage, the developer had a dream to build a fully sustainable, high tech city of the future. He envisioned solar power, high speed internet connections, driverless vehicles and sustainable and energy efficient homes. His dream was of a walkable, livable, mixed use community that would attract residents from all over the world.
He started working through the local, state and federal permits needed for such a big development and then the real estate bubble burst. Where most developers would have simply walked away, this developer took his time but did not let his vision waiver. In November of 2015, they contacted us and said they were ready to begin construction.
We thought it would still be several years before we saw actual construction, boy were we wrong! In the past 18 months, we have started to see the developers’ vision become reality:
- A solar farm consisting of 300,000 solar panels has been built and is supplying power to the development. (If you laid these end to end, they would stretch from Southwest Florida to Chicago).
- Lakes and stormwater control structures have been constructed to control the water that flows through this area and to provide fill for the development.
- Roads, utilities, fiber and natural gas lines have been installed where there was nothing but vacant land.
- An entire town square has been built complete with a bandstand, a restaurant, a discovery center and an outfitters store.
- Trails have been created for nature lovers and walkers.
- Model houses are being built and lots and houses are being sold.
- Bikes, canoes and paddleboards can be rented for exploring the development and lakes.
- A school and shared business space will be open this summer.
- Autonomous vehicles are planned for early next year.
Even though there is not a single resident in Babcock Ranch yet, it has become a destination. People eat at the restaurant, listen to live music, participate in paddleboard yoga, cross fit and many other different activities and events.
It’s my department that is responsible for all of the local permitting and approvals needed to make this development a reality. We were all incredibly inspired by the vision of the developer and wanted to ensure our processes were in line with this vision.
The biggest impact we could have there was in terms of reducing processes and using technology to handle applications. We did this by following these steps:
- We looked at our existing processes and determined, due to the unique nature of the development, what we could eliminate. In terms of building permit applications. We took this from a six-step review process to a two-step process.
- We made the applications completely electronic to cut down on drive times and unnecessary paper.
- We use an electronic document review process to sign off on the applications.
- We allow the developer access into our permitting system to sign off on their inspections for our records.
- We educated the applicants and walked them through the processes to minimize delays.
- We work closely with the developer and the contractors to learn from mistakes and continuously improve the process.
The result is a set of high tech, sophisticated, streamlined solutions to every day processes. We have set a groundwork for the years to come that will take this project from the early stages it is in now to completion. We have forged collaborative partnerships that create open dialogue and the ability to discuss issues and troubleshoot together. For me personally, I know I will one day look back at this project as a highlight of my career in government and I am so proud of my team and the work they are doing to make this solar city a reality.