Orange County fire marshal asked to review response slowed by hurricane damage, neighbors say

Main entrance to neighborhood under construction after storm damage

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Construction in one Orange County neighborhood may have delayed emergency crews coming to a house fire back in November, prompting the fire marshal to review the response.

People who live in the Starlight Ranch community near Pershing Avenue and South Semoran Boulevard say what started as hurricane damage has turned into a possible public safety hazard.

Shortly after you enter the main entrance to the Starlight Ranch community, the bridge that connects the front of the neighborhood to the back is closed to pedestrian and vehicle traffic and has been since Hurricane Ian.

Residents say Ian caused the damage, but the ongoing repair work is restricting access to the community.

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Neighbors said they feel trapped in their community and the lack of communication has been frustrating.

Mary Stivale-Rivera has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.

“This has been absolutely ridiculous,” Stivale-Rivera said. “Why is this taking so long? This is going on eight, nine months.”

During Hurricane Ian, the culvert below Wildhorse Road was washed out, causing a portion of the bridge to collapse.

Since then, Equity Lifestyle Properties, the owner of the property, has said it has been in permitting with Orange County Utilities and the St. Johns River Water Management District.

“It’s definitely an inconvenience to the entire community,” said Luis Melendez, another resident.

About three quarters of the homes cannot access the front entrance. There is a back emergency entrance that is now open, but it takes 10 to 15 minutes to drive to the front of the community to access their mailboxes, according to neighbors.

Dawn Hughes is frustrated, too.

“We do have a lot of elderly people who don’t drive anymore,” Hughes said.  “We have a lot of elderly people who get medications delivered or other things delivered and if it’s a small delivery, GPS would route them around the front and they weren’t getting their deliveries.”

Residents say it’s not only an inconvenience, it’s a possible hazard.

Last November, one of the homes in the back of the community caught fire and some of the fire trucks were delayed because they went to the front entrance, according to residents.

They believe the house may have been saved if there was no delay.

“Absolutely. No doubt in my mind,” Hughes said. “Because there’s an extra 10 or 15 minutes just to get back down and around.”

They also took their concern to Orange County Commissioner Mayra Uribe.

“This is why we decided to get the fire marshal involved and have them review it,” Uribe told News 6.

Residents also say they have been given limited information about the project.

“If they would communicate and give us something, people wouldn’t be so frustrated,” Stivale-Rivera said.

Johnson Laux is doing the construction and laid out the plans for News 6.

In addition to the bridge, metal pipes underground that breached during the storm are being replaced, upgraded to reinforced concrete pipes that can handle more water.

But it will take time.

“That’s what we’re also checking on, when was this permit issued, how long is the permit good for, what’s their progress?” Uribe said.

Jennifer Ludovice, a spokesperson for Equity Lifestyle Properties, sent News 6 the following statement:

“We have been working in cooperation with the Fire Marshal’s office throughout the construction process. Representatives of the Fire Marshal’s office have been to the property since construction began on the bridge repair project, including a property inspection.

The demolition phase of the project is currently underway. During the demolition process, our contractors discovered communication cables and conduit in the culvert which were not marked in any documents provided by the authorities. We are working with AT&T and Spectrum to relocate the cables and conduit now. In the meantime, we have begun working on the storm pipe down the road from the culvert while we wait for the communication cables to be relocated.

While the area is under construction, the bridge must be closed to pedestrian and vehicle traffic for safety reasons - a closure which was communicated in advance to residents of the community. There are access points at the front and back of the community, so all areas of the property remain accessible by vehicle.

We look forward to the completion of the culvert repair project over the next few months.”

Jennifer Ludovice, spokesperson for Equity Lifestyle Properties

Laux said crews hope to have the project done by October, but they warn we are entering the rainy and hurricane seasons, which can cause delays.

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About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning reporter Louis Bolden joined the News 6 team in September of 2001 and hasn't gotten a moment's rest since. Louis has been a General Assignment Reporter for News 6 and Weekend Morning Anchor. He joined the Special Projects/Investigative Unit in 2014.