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Welcome to America’s first solar-powered town

ABC News
ABC News

(BABCOCK RANCH, Fla.) — Richard and Robin Kinley are among the retirees who move to Florida every year.

However, this couple gets to watch the sunset every night over a lake that’s named after them — Lake Kinley.

The sustainable Babcock Ranch, just north of Fort Myers, Florida, was built to be America’s first solar-powered town, and the Kinleys were the first to purchase a home and move in.

“It reminded me of the first time I saw my future wife many years ago,” Richard Kinley told ABC News of his first visit to Babcock Ranch’s model homes a year ago. “I fell head over heels.”

They were the town’s first residents as of Jan. 4, even though the community’s official grand opening is in March.

Babcock Ranch was designed with sustainability in mind — from a solar energy plant to autonomous transit.

“We set out some eight years ago to become the first solar-powered town in America,” said Syd Kitson, the CEO of by Kitson & Partners, who bought the land in 2006 — all 91,000 acres of it.

The bulk of the land that was purchased, 73,000 acres, was sold to the state of Florida for preservation of the wetlands and wildlife, such as the Florida panther.

“It was the largest land purchase by the state in the history of Florida,” said Kitson.

Of the remaining 18,000 acres, only half became the Babcock Ranch, which is now one of the greenest communities in America, while the other half was used for further preservation of land.

Jim and Donna Aveck, retirees living in Punta Gorda, Florida, heard Kitson talk at a conference about the town he wanted to build back in 2006 after he purchased the land.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘That’s where we want to live,'” Donna Aveck told ABC News, adding that they’re downsizing from their last home because they want to lower their carbon footprint.

As the second residents of the town, the couple also had a lake named after them — Lake James.

“We chose ‘James’ because it has a nice ring to it,” Aveck said. “Lake Jim or Aveck just didn’t have the same ring.”

The draw of the budding community was a big factor for the future homeowners.

“We want this to be a multigenerational community, not just for empty nesters, but for young people and families,” explained Kitson. “In order to attract that, we started with the school.”

The K-6 public charter school is fully subscribed with students and opened last August, even without people living in the neighborhood.

In fact, the town center has opened a restaurant and clothing store so far, with a coffee shop, co-working space, health and wellness center, and ice cream parlor on the way.

Another elementary school is also being built and expected to open with the start of the next school year.

Ten years of planning went into the town before the builders turned dirt two years ago.

“[We took] initiative to say that if we’re going to build something, we’re going to do it the right way,” said Kitson.

He wanted to prove that environmental responsibility and development can go hand in hand, with one of those features being solar energy.

During the day, the solar plant is built to generate more energy than the town consumes, while at night, the town is powered by a nearby natural gas plant.

“The whole sustainability idea is the closest I can get to guilt-free living,” said Kinley, a self-proclaimed technophile, who owns a Tesla that he can charge at one of Babcock Ranch’s stations.

The couple is also in awe of the autonomous shuttle, which is one of several dozen in the world, and Donna Aveck said that she is excited to take a ride on it.

The driverless shuttle has eight censors and uses GPS to get around the community.

Right now, a driver is assigned to the vehicle because it still in the testing phase.

Kitson started looking into autonomous vehicles six years ago and hopes to have a fleet of shuttles available in the coming years, the CEO said.

The shuttle will eventually be able to respond to requests for pickup via an app in an Uber-like fashion, he added.

“When you go get to get approval for a new town, there is no box that says ‘new town’ and you check that box,” said Kitson. “We were very fortunate that we had a great county that stepped up and worked closely with us.”

The starting price for a home here is $185,999 but can go upwards of $750,000.

Every house is equipped with fiber optic cable that runs underground.

“I’m still dancing around about the internet,” said Aveck. “It’s so fast.”

The fiber optic cable gives residents high-speed connection to keep up with the tech advancements of the future, said Kitson.

“[The amount of] homes sold changes daily,” said Kitson, saying that they’ve already sold close to 80.

All of the homes have a porch and are close to the sidewalk, making it easy for the residents to connect with each other.

“As soon as we move in, I’m sure we will be getting together with the Kinleys to go to the restaurant,” said Donna.

The Kinleys are excited about their incoming neighbors.

“I think we have met more of our future neighbors than the neighbors we had back in Atlanta,” said Richard Kinley. “It’s a very intentional move to come this place. There will a lot of people with like-minded thinking about sustainability.”

And more residents are moving in within the coming weeks to enjoy the 50 miles of hiking trails through the preserved land, plus community gardens, a lake house and events such as yoga classes — all part of the Babcock Ranch lifestyle.

“Every day that goes by it seems more and more like fate,” said Kinley of his new home.

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