By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
The sweeping green lawns of the Columbine Knolls neighborhood are punctuated by ranch-style brick houses and a smattering of split-levels and two-story homes. The 1,100 or so households in the vicinity are governed by a homeowners' association that enforces covenants designed to keep the area clean, tidy and wholesome.
So it came as a shock to Karen Hansen that the neighborhood -- which lies south of West Coal Mine Avenue in unincorporated Littleton -- also accommodates three group homes for juvenile sex offenders, as well as a private school and an administrative building where therapists conduct testing and evaluation of those young people.
Her discovery ultimately led to a countywide ban on such homes in residential areas of Jeffco. Eighteen months from now, the homes will have to close up shop, change their clientele or obtain a special-use permit to continue. Given the tenor of the neighborhood, the last scenario is highly unlikely.
Checking It Twice
The sex-offender registry brands kids well into adulthood.
The neighborhood's three-year-long fight, says local resident Bob Remington, has reached "the end of the beginning."
For the Shiloh House group homes, however, it might be the beginning of the end.
The battle began in the spring of 1997, when Hansen heard that the county zoning department had recommended approval of a Shiloh House request to rezone one of its commercial buildings on West Coal Mine Avenue. Shiloh officials were hoping to use the building for short-term and emergency housing for as many as eighteen juveniles.
At the time, Hansen had no idea Shiloh House worked with sex offenders. Nor did anyone else in the vicinity, she says.
But at a neighborhood meeting, a sheriff's deputy suggested that if Hansen wanted to learn more about the agency, she should obtain a copy of the area's sex-offender registry. She went to the sheriff's department the next day.
"I paid three bucks, five bucks, something like that," Hansen recalls. "I said I'd like a copy of the sex-offender list and a map. And [the clerk] held up a map with pins in one little area. It was solid with pins. And I said, 'Gosh, where's that?' And she said, 'That's the Shiloh houses.'
"I almost died," Hansen says. "I cannot express to you how I felt. I had trouble standing up. I said, 'That's my neighborhood. The pins are boys in my neighborhood.'
"I drove home, crying and shaking."
At the time, Shiloh was proceeding with public meetings that are required when a rezoning is requested. Shiloh officials were present for the next homeowners' meeting. Hansen attended, too, armed with her map.
Hansen says that when the homeowners asked Shiloh representatives if they treat sex offenders, they were told no. (Shiloh officials declined to be interviewed for this story.) Hansen and others then held up their maps.
The Shiloh folks backpedaled, she says, insisting that the youth's offenses were only minor.
But the damage was done. The homeowners decided to fight the rezoning, and the county commissioners later denied Shiloh's request.
Some of the Shiloh group homes have been operating in Columbine Knolls for fifteen years. (Another Shiloh-owned home in the area has sheltered foster children for 25 years, although sex offenders are not housed there.)
Hansen and Remington believed there was little they could do to rid the neighborhood of the existing group homes, but they began researching the issue anyway.
What they discovered, says Remington, is that "the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."
There was no communication between the county and the state regarding placement of juvenile offenders. The various county departments had different definitions of such things as "group homes" and "treatment centers." The county zoning department was reacting only to complaints against the homes and not being proactive in inspecting the facilities, and the county had no answer when homeowners asked about guidelines governing group homes in the area.
The issue again came to a head in the spring of 1999 when, Hansen says, residents on South Sheridan Court "went ballistic" upon learning that Shiloh operated a group home for sex offenders on their street. Shiloh officials reported receiving threats. Hansen says the neighbors backed off when they heard that a Shiloh attorney might sue.
But in late June that year, the residents got the wedge they sought when Lakewood passed an ordinance limiting sex offenders to one per home. Representatives of the Columbine Knolls neighborhood then went to county administrator Ron Holliday and asked him to examine the issue.
In response, Holliday established a group of homeowners, therapists, Shiloh representatives and county staffers to clarify the responsibilities of the governing agencies and help him draft recommendations for the commissioners to consider. It was a daunting task, as the group had to take into consideration myriad state and federal laws and regulations, zoning regulations, property rights, individual rights, safety and social-service concerns.
In late October the group published its findings, in which the members recommended, among other things, that group homes for sex offenders be moved out of residential neighborhoods and that the county help find a place to put them.
The county zoning department and the county commissioners then held a number of public meetings seeking input -- and emotions surrounding the matter quickly became apparent.