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.
The majority of the residents, though, chose to use the system to their advantage. "We have just begun to fight," H.O.M.E. member Ted Bendelow said at a community gathering the day before the delay request was to be heard in court. "We're going to take the county to the courthouse every step of the way. We're going to do it legally and do it with honor, but we're going to fight them every step of the way."
Asked by an audience member if that means that H.O.M.E. boardmembers intend to delay the proposal until the county fails to meet its own deadline, Bendelow, an attorney, was cagey. "I don't want to give away our strategy," he replied. "I don't know who's out there [in the audience]."
H.O.M.E. lost its bid for a delay, and an estimated 500 to 700 people showed up for the August 22 commissioners' meeting. They filled the hearing room, another nearby room and the cafeteria, then spilled out into the hallway and the atrium. Sheriff's deputies checked everyone entering for weapons, an unusual move for a commissioners' meeting, but county staffers had asked for tough security in light of threats they'd received concerning placement of the facility.
About 200 people signed up to address the commission.
Indicative, perhaps, of their desperation, Pine residents posed some unusual arguments as to why the mountain community is less than ideal for a group home, including:
* If a juvenile should escape and spend the night in the woods, he could be injured or killed by bears, mountain lions or elk.
* The facility should be moved to the plains, where there aren't so many trees to hide behind.
* Sex offenders sometimes abuse animals, so the commissioners should be worried about the wildlife.
* There's a Girl Scout camp ten miles from the proposed site.
* City slickers who come to visit the juveniles will drive to the mountains in "one-wheel-drive cars," slip and slide on the ice and snow and tie up traffic.
* Rednecks live in the community, they love the "Make My Day" laws, and they might pull a shotgun on an escapee. They might even pull a shotgun on an innocent teenager whom they believe to be an escapee.
* Pine is a heavily populated area.
* Pine is too removed from highly populated areas.
Other residents made points that struck right at the county's own criteria for locating the facility: The proposed site is in a fire "red zone," which means housing density is high and the forests are fire-prone; U.S. 285 is presently undergoing reconstruction and will remain torn up in one part or another for as long as ten years; winter driving conditions can make commutes to the area long and arduous; there isn't a lot of water to be had in the vicinity; fire department and sheriff's services are lacking; and the location is far from the courts, hospitals and offenders' families.
The testimony lasted for seven hours, with a one-hour break for lunch. Several speakers said they were afraid that the commissioners already had their minds made up to proceed with the land swap. And those fears may have been warranted: Commissioners spoke for only a few minutes before deciding unanimously to forge ahead with their request to the State Land Board. (That board is slated to listen to the county's request on October 3.)
But the commissioners also told the audience that they would hold on to the land north of Golden and that they would continue their search for a suitable site. Jeffco spokeswoman Jennifer Watson says that means county staffers not only will go back and take another look at the eighty or so properties they've already considered, but they also will check to see if there are any possible sites they might have missed in their original analysis.
Pine residents weren't mollified.
"This ain't over yet! I promise you that," a man shouted to commissioners after the vote.
And indeed, the fight is far from over.
H.O.M.E. spokesman Stan Foxx says his group is "busy strategizing, trying to come up with a coherent strategy" to fight the facility, and pushing the county to establish a panel of experts to analyze the project. "Why the county is committed to this course of action, we don't know," he says.
And then there are the owners of the existing Shiloh facilities.
"All along, their desire has been to stay where they are," says attorney David Fine, who represents Shiloh, adding that one or more of the Shiloh homes may apply for a special-use permit that would allow them to stay put. "I don't know which home will apply, or if it would be for all of them," he says. But because special-use permits must be approved by the county commission -- which established the one-sex-offender-per-home regulation in the first place -- Fine says he sees the permit process as "an exercise in futility."
"Our final option would be to challenge the resolution legally," he says.
For now, though, the facility's owners are hedging their bets by submitting a bid to operate the proposed Pine facility (a decision on who will operate the new facility is expected in about a week).
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So where does that leave Columbine Knolls?
John Gross, an attorney and Columbine Knolls-area resident, says he fully expects that Shiloh representatives will press for special-use permits that would allow them to stay put. "Then, when they're denied," he says, "we anticipate that they will sue." If the county misses its 2002 deadline, "the neighbors will be upset," Gross says, but the question then becomes not what Columbine Knolls residents will do, but what the county will do. "That's what we would react to."
Holliday is less than optimistic.
If "serious site planning" for the proposed facility doesn't begin by December 1 of this year, he believes the county could miss its deadline. In that case, he says, "we'll have to do something different."