TAMPA — Citing a year-old "safety zone" ordinance, the county gave eight men 24 hours to leave a controversial mobile home park for sex offenders in Palm River on Thursday.
The move came hours after residents demanded help from Hillsborough County commissioners.
"I'm totally against this," resident Cindy Lamoureux, 37, told commissioners. "Take them somewhere where there's not children involved."
The commissioners asked the county attorney to look into ways to shut the park down.
Within hours, sheriff's deputies were at the park, taking measurements to see if the county's safety zone ordinance applied.
The ordinance, adopted last March, applies to sex offenders who have been classified as "predators" for repeat offenses or particularly heinous crimes.
It prohibits them from being within 300 feet of a place frequented by children.
County Attorney Sheree Fish said the deputies found a school bus stop within 300 feet of the park.
Initially, she said she read the ordinance as prohibiting predators from being within 300 feet of the bus stop — even if they were in bed asleep.
She called law enforcement and told them to remove the men. However, after a reporter pointed out that the ordinance specifically doesn't apply to a predator's place of residence, Fish conceded that the men were not in violation of the law when they were inside their homes.
But she said she still read the ordinance as preventing the men from loitering outside.
"If they stayed inside, then conceivably under the ordinance they would not be in violation. & But it has been reported that they are not doing that," Fish said.
The mobile home park started housing sex offenders a few months ago. Ten men live there now, eight of whom are predators.
The park is run by Florida Justice Transitions, a Pinellas County-based nonprofit agency that provides counseling and housing for sex offenders.
At Transitions' Pinellas site, offenders are closely supervised and attend onsite counseling, and substance abuse and anger management sessions.
Founder Nancy Morais said the men at the Palm River location don't yet have access to the same amenities, but they are transported to therapy weekly and supervised by the property manager.
The facility could eventually hold about 30 men, she said.
Morais said she believes her program helps keep sex offenders from committing more crimes.
"I'm helping keep the recidivism rate down," Morais said. "I want to know where they are."
But neighboring residents didn't agree. Housing sex offenders together is asking for trouble, said Tony Spino, 39.
"They only have one thing in common," Spino told the commission Thursday. "They're comparing notes."
Palm River residents were alerted to the men's presence last week by Judy Cornett, a Lutz resident who runs a nonprofit that identifies sex offenders in communities.
"I've watched these guys walk the streets. I have them on video walking the streets," she told the commission Thursday. "Somebody needs to put a halt to this before a child gets hurts in this neighborhood."
The commission pledged its support. "We need to immediately jump on this," Commissioner Jim Norman said.
By Thursday afternoon, Fish was calling the Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Corrections, saying the Palm River park was in violation of the ordinance.
She said later that she is also looking for a way to evict the two sex offenders who are not covered by the safety zone ordinance.
Morais said she heard the news from corrections officials a little before 5 p.m. She was upset.
"I have no place to put them," she said.
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at [email protected] or 661-2442.