Developer Syd Kitson knew the odds of brokering a deal to develop part of the coveted 91,000-acre Babcock Ranch in Southwest Florida were about as long as a successful Hail Mary pass. Yet, on faith, the former Green Bay Packer called the play anyway.
“It was such a daunting task,” says the CEO of West Palm Beach–based Kitson & Partners. It was a task that challenged developers with more experience than Kitson–who has developed two Florida communities through Kitson & Partners as well as several New Jersey master planned developments. “There were so many steps along the way where this thing just could have stopped. But I always had faith in what we were doing, and I always believed so strongly that what we were doing was right,” he continues.
BOUGHT THE RANCH What Kitson aimed to do was to buy the entire ranch from the Babcock family—which had owned the land for nearly 100 years–then immediately sell almost 74,000 environmentally sensitive acres back to Lee County and the state of Florida to be preserved from development. This plan would leave more than 17,000 acres for a town of 19,500 homes. However, it was a task others had already tried—and failed.
“It went to the very last day, almost the very last minute,” says Kitson, who finalized all the pieces of the unique public–private partnership on July 31, buying all 91,000 acres in one transaction and then reselling almost 74,000 acres to the state within a matter of hours. It was a deal that made everybody happy, except perhaps the hundreds of other developers that had hoped to nab the parcel, which straddles Lee and Charlotte counties and is roughly the size of Philadelphia.
It was that extreme deadline, and the failure of other attempts to preserve the land, that probably account for a good share of Kitson's success. The 40-plus descendants of Pittsburgh lumber magnate Edward Vose Babcock, who bought the land in 1914, needed to sell the tract by July 31 or face huge tax consequences. And, ideally, they hoped a chunk of it would go to the state for preservation and that the ranch employees would be able to keep their jobs.
Kitson's plan to develop only about 20 percent into a town with environmental sensibilities and to sell the rest to the state appealed to almost all the environmental groups, especially compared with the plans of other developers in the wings that wanted to develop the entire parcel, which is home to endangered species and includes wetlands that are key to the preserving the purity of the area's water supply.
State officials liked it because Kitson's involvement meant they might finally be able to buy a good portion of the land at a lower than appraised price, plus Kitson had offered to manage the existing ranch on the property for 10 years, a feature both the family and the state wanted to preserve as a living piece of Florida history.
But even with so many parties partnered in a win-win situation, Kitson's plan still faced a number of obstacles. And it's clear those tasks are still burned into his brain as he ticks them off in order.
The first was to get the family on his side.