Pasco toughens regulations on where sex offenders may live

Published April 22, 2015

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County commissioners are making it more difficult for registered sex offenders to reside in the county.

With a 5-0 vote Tuesday afternoon, the board approved a new ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, day care centers, parks and public libraries. State law sets the buffer at 1,000 feet and excludes libraries.

The ordinance is not retroactive, so the 907 offenders in the county will not have to relocate if they are meeting the state residency requirements. They will, however, have to follow the new restrictions if they fail to register their addresses with law enforcement, as the state requires.

The ordinance drew opposition from Tampa psychotherapist Ruben Drake, who treats sexual abusers.

Drake asked for additional study, saying there was no empirical data showing that a 2,500-foot buffer makes children safer. Such ordinances conjure up public images of predators hiding in the bushes, but most victims are acquainted with their assailants, he said.

The other objection came from registered sex offender James Reese of Wesley Chapel. He said he feared the ordinance would make it difficult for him to move in the future and hurt his ability to support his family.

"I understand your fears," Reese said. "I ask you to understand mine."

Commissioners, however, noted that Reese and others are grandfathered from the new residency requirements.

"If we can save one child from being a victim, then this ordinance is worth it," Commissioner Mike Moore said.

The ordinance, proposed by Moore shortly after his November election to the commission, is less strict than first suggested. Moore initially sought to include school bus stops in the buffered areas. But the 4,400 Pasco County School District bus stop locations, nearly all of which are more than 2 miles from a school, made it impractical. Instead, the ordinance includes 300-foot safety zones that prohibit sexual offenders from being near bus stops, youth sports facilities and other areas when children congregate there.

Additionally, at the request of the Pasco Sheriff's Office, the ordinance extends to all sexual offenders the prohibition against handing out candy to Halloween trick-or-treaters. Currently, the state controls on Halloween safety apply only to sexual offenders under state supervision.

The state adopted its residency restrictions in 2004, and many local governments followed suit after the 2005 abduction, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by a convicted sex offender living nearby in Citrus County.

In Pasco County, the city of New Port Richey has a 2,500-foot buffer, and the city of San Antonio uses 1,500 feet. A map showing where the sex offenders can live is not yet complete, but must be finished before the ordinance can be enforced.