A 4-inch reptile recently stopped progress on the construction of approved affordable housing for Central Florida.
The sand skink — a small, snake-like, sand-burrowing lizard — created a hefty fine of $340,000 and a 6-month halt in construction for New Beginnings of Central Florida. New Beginnings currently operates a homeless residential program and a vast array of social services with the mission of empowering the homeless, hungry and poor to live responsible lives.
According to New Beginnings President and Founder, Steve Smith, lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness, so New Beginnings purchased a 10-acre site on South Grand Highway in Clermont, near the intersection of Citrus Tower Boulevard with the goal to build 100 affordable apartments.
Approved for $19 million of funding from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation last year, New Beginnings and partner, Blue Sky Communities, were set to break ground on the Woodwinds community, offering 96 affordable apartments in 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms.
Progress screeched to a halt when an inspection revealed sand skinks on property. The Fish and Wildlife Service considers the reptile a threatened species, one designation below endangered.
Originally the inspection of Woodwinds future site showed no sand skinks 2 years ago. Because the inspection only lasts for a year, the subsequent inspection uncovered signs of the sand-burrowing reptiles on 3 of the 10-acre site. This discovery required a conservation fine of $340,000, and the likely threat that construction might be delayed for 1-2 years.
Thanks in part to assistance from U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL-15), the clearance to build has finally been given to New Beginnings and Blue Sky Communities from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“The moment I heard about possible construction stalling in the New Beginnings project, I knew we couldn’t waste any more time in helping those less fortunate obtain housing,” said Congressman Ross. “I immediately sent a letter to Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to highlight the importance of New Beginnings’ project to our community and the need for its timely completion.”
Woodwinds will be Clermont’s first affordable apartments built in 20 years.
Although affordable apartments are not widely available in the area, demand is high. The only other affordable housing apartment complex in Clermont currently has an extensive waiting list of six months to two years, meaning the current needs are just not being met.
To fill this need, New Beginnings is partnering with developer Blue Sky Communities, a leader in helping non-profit organizations create new affordable housing for their clients.
Woodwinds residents will have access to New Beginnings social services, including classes such as financial education, budgeting and career counseling, parenting, wellness, life skills, computer lab and afterschool activities programs, as well as potential summer programs for children. Rents are projected to be less than $600 per month for a one bedroom apartment, making these apartments affordable for a wide range of people.
The application process opens early 2018. Completion and occupancy is currently planned for Spring 2018.
After waiting six months for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s approval to move forward following the sand skink discovery, New Beginnings received permission in late May.
New Beginnings and Blue Sky hosted a groundbreaking ceremony June 30 for Woodwinds. Local, county and state government officials, including Congressman Ross’ office, attended this ceremony. The Mayor of Clermont, Gail Ash, gave the opening comments.
“I am thrilled New Beginnings was able to keep a timely permitting process and will soon break ground on constructing this much-needed housing for our disadvantaged and low-income neighbors who might not have a place to live or stay otherwise,” said Congressman Ross.
This year, New Beginnings celebrates 10 years of social services.