So Many Sex Offenders, So Little Time

Jeffco's search for a place to put its juvenile sex offenders is going nowhere fast.

Pine residents angry over a proposal to build a facility for juvenile sex offenders in their mountain town may be surprised to discover that they have a lot in common with the people who operate the facility where those offenders are now living: Pine doesn't want the group home in its backyard, and the facility operators don't want to go there. But those desires have run headlong into a couple of political barriers: Jefferson County zoning ordinances enacted earlier this year that ban group homes for sex offenders in residential areas; and the county's self-imposed deadline of 2002 to have a new facility up and running.

Whatever happens, it's likely that Jeffco will face a lawsuit from someone, be it furious Pine residents; the operators of the Shiloh treatment center and several group homes in the Columbine Knolls area near Littleton; or the residents of Columbine Knolls who expect the Shiloh homes to be gone by the February 2002 date the county promised them. And it is appearing increasingly likely that the county will miss its deadline.

The dilemma is of Jeffco's own making. In July 1999, residents of Columbine Knolls were buoyed by a decision by Lakewood city officials to limit sex offenders to one per household. Many of the residents felt that their community was teeming with juvenile sex offenders -- Shiloh has a treatment center, school and three group homes housing 32 sex offenders in the area -- and they pressured Jeffco officials to change the county's zoning laws and adopt a similar ordinance ("The Boys Next Door," June 15).

But unlike cities, counties are required by both state and federal laws to find suitable placements for juvenile offenders, and federal law requires that juvenile offenders be placed in the least restrictive family-like setting appropriate to their needs. For many of the offenders, who range in age from ten to eighteen and whose crimes may range from inappropriate touching to rape, a juvenile prison is not considered a suitable placement.

In late January, the county commissioners bowed to the pressure and changed the zoning laws so that only one registered sex offender was allowed per home, but they gave group homes a two-year window to be "brought into conformity." And because county officials promised to help find a new site for the displaced youths, they have only until February 2002 to create an acceptable facility.

"We truly believe in our heart of hearts that we're trying to do the right thing," Jefferson County administrator Ron Holliday says. "I think it would have been unreasonable for us to adopt an ordinance and simply ban these [facilities]. It wouldn't have been responsible. We are taking the next step with us trying to find a site and run interference for the providers.

"It is a responsible thing to do," he adds. "But it's sure not easy."

The county developed four major criteria for a site: It should not be in a heavily populated residential area; there should be good access to public transportation; it should have reasonable access for family visitation; there must be reasonable services to meet treatment needs. Jeffco began the search with 75 to 80 potential sites, eventually narrowing the list to about a dozen. By the end of January, it had tentatively settled on a site on the outskirts of Golden. The county bought 151 acres there -- nine acres for the group home, and the remainder as a buffer surrounding the site.

But the city and local residents fought the proposal. Neighbors said youths from the facility could endanger locals and anyone using the open space. Golden officials complained that their town already bears a significant burden of housing offenders -- it is home to the Lookout Mountain facility for juveniles, a state prison camp and the county jail.

County commissioners backed off, and on July 18, they announced to a handful of Pine residents that they were considering building a facility for between sixty and a hundred youths on a 1,120-acre site between Pine Junction and the Pine Valley Estates subdivision. The facility would take up about twenty acres, with the other 1,000 acres serving as open space. Jeffco doesn't own the tract, however; it is the property of the State Land Board, which is charged with managing more than three million acres in Colorado to help generate money for schools and public buildings. But county officials said they hoped to swap parcels with the land board, giving the state eighteen acres near the Lakewood Federal Center in return for the mountain property.

Members of the Pine community -- which had only recently endured losses from the summer's Hi Meadow fire and faced the threat of flooding -- immediately leapt into action. United by disaster, they banded together again to commit themselves to the new cause. Within a week of learning of the proposal, they formed H.O.M.E. (Help Our Mountain Environment), collected $13,000 in donations, hired an attorney, established a Web site and, in only three days, collected 3,000 signatures on a petition asking the county commissioners to delay a scheduled August 22 hearing on the matter.

H.O.M.E representatives asked for calm negotiations, but tempers boiled over nonetheless. At one meeting, a 52-year-old man was arrested after stating he wanted to "hurt or kill" Holliday. In addition, Holliday says, residents have threatened to shoot any sex offender whom they come across from the facility.

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