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Curbside parking in Winter Garden prompts Orange Co. fire investigation

Residents say school buses, medical vehicles can't get by

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Parking on the streets of Independence, a planned community in Winter Gardens, is creating an unintentional road block almost every morning for school bus drivers trying to pick up students, including those with special needs.

[WEB EXTRA: Video:  Mike Holfeld drives bus | Orange County ordinance ]

Over the past two weeks, Local 6 has uncovered evidence of daily delays involving Orange County school buses, with some delays lasting as long as 45 minutes.

With some streets in the community just 24 feet across residents say the path quickly shrinks when you park two cars on either side of the street.

Add a bus that is at least 8 feet in width and county bus drivers are faced with an obstacle course that is nearly impassable.

Orange County Public School Transportation Chief Jim Beekman says this is happening in many of the communities.

Beekman estimates that there are 3,000 special needs students served by the bus system every day and that means drivers need to get as close to their homes as possible.

In Beekman's view the narrow streets are just part of the story.

"They (the drivers) have to try to maneuver a 40 foot vehicle, look at the mirrors all the way around them but they still have students on board," he said.

Erin Johnston has lived in the planned community for three years and sees the delays as a warning that goes beyond an inconvenience. Her 3-year-old son, Caleb, is a special needs student.

"I have a medically needy son who is actually terminally ill, and for him to get 9-1-1 service to his house quickly is a matter of life or death," Johnston said.

Johnston took photographs and video clips on two different occasions as Sheriff's deputies awakened residents to move their cars.

Orange County Chief Fire Marshal Bruce Faust says Johnston's concerns are compelling.

"Anytime one of our citizens in concerned about us reaching them we're concerned and we're going to investigate," Faust said.

Faust says the original community plans show some streets were never intended for curbside parking.

Faust met with management of Independence last Friday. He emerged from an hour-long meeting convinced a compromise would be reached a plan would be put into action soon.

"We are reviewing the original site plans regarding parking in the Independence community and comparing that to the situation that is occurring," he said. "If we identify variances we will work to resolve the issues with the homeowners association and the community."