By Kate Irish Collins
SOUTH PORTLAND - South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins said he never wants to ask the question of whether his department could have done more to protect the city’s children. That’s why he is pushing for a new ordinance that would limit where a certain class of sex offender could live within city limits.
At its meeting on Monday, the City Council gave unanimous initial approval to the new residency rules, which would prohibit sex offenders convicted of “serious crimes” – defined as a class A, B or C felony against children under 14 – from living within 750 feet of a school, park, athletic field or recreational facility.
The Greenbelt Walkway, which runs the length of the city, however, would be specially exempted. A public hearing and second reading on the ordinance will be held at 7 p.m. on May 19.
In introducing the sex offender residency restrictions, Googins called them “reasonable and balanced” and said the goal of the new rules is to protect children.
He said South Portland has 26 registered sex offenders who live, work or attend school in the city. Of that group, 10 offenders reside in the city and six are now living in areas that would fall within the proposed sex offender restriction zones.
Googins said any sex offender who has had a prior continuous residence within the areas designated as off limits would be grandfathered if the new rules take effect.
In a memo sent to City Manager Jim Gailey outlining the new residency restrictions, Googins said, “There are significant residential areas of the city, which would not be affected and therefore (this ordinance) balances the interests and needs of sex offenders by allowing ample housing.”
In the memo Googins also said, “I fully understand the impact such an ordinance has, and I strongly believe that these further protective measures (are) necessary to safeguard places where children congregate and (are) a positive step toward improving the safety of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”
Once the new rules are in place, a sex offender violating the residency restrictions could face fines of up to $500 a day.
In his comments Monday, Gailey told the City Council that the Maine Legislature passed a bill in 2009 specifically allowing municipalities to put residency restrictions on a certain class of sex offender. Creating and implementing such an ordinance for South Portland, he said, is a top priority of the police department.
Specifically, the new ordinance would prohibit a sex offender from living within “a distance of 750 feet surrounding the real property comprising a public or private elementary, middle or secondary school or up to a maximum distance of 750 feet surrounding the real property comprising a municipally owned or state-owned property that is leased to a nonprofit organization for purposes of a park, athletic field or recreational facility that is open to the public where children are the primary users.”
In the findings and purposes section of the new ordinance it states: “The city promotes and strives to create a safe environment for its citizens to live and raise families and considers the promotion of the safety and welfare of children to be of paramount importance. The city recognizes that sex offenders who prey upon children may have a high rate of recidivism (Studies don't show this) … (and) the city finds that further protective measures are necessary and warranted to safeguard places where children congregate.”
No one spoke against the new residency restrictions during Monday’s meeting, although Councilor Tom Blake did ask Gailey if the city had heard anything from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine in opposition to the ordinance. Gailey said that as of Monday his office had received no communication from the civil liberties union in regard to the sex offender residency restrictions being proposed.
Prior to the council’s initial vote on the new ordinance, Councilor Melissa Linscott said she’s pleased to see the restrictions come forward and said they were important to have in place.
Mayor Gerard Jalbert agreed and said, “We need tools in place to keep children safe.”
Council favors zoning proposalsIn other action Monday, the City Council gave initial approval to a controversial new commercial zone in the Thornton Heights neighborhood, which could pave the way for a new Dunkin’ Donuts store to go up on what is now an undeveloped, city-owned lot at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets.
The vote on the Thornton Heights Commercial zone was 5-2, with councilors Blake and Patti Smith opposed.
The vote followed another lengthy public comment period, during which most of the speakers urged the council not to move the new zone forward.
And, similar to the workshop held on the new Thornton Heights zone last week, members of the Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue on Westbrook Street were outspoken about the plan.
However, before the vote on first reading, Jalbert said the council is still keeping an open mind about how to best use the city-owned lot, which is adjacent to the synagogue. And he said within the next two weeks there is still time to come up with a compromise solution.
Following the 5-2 vote on the new Thornton Heights zone, the council unanimously approved new zoning for the west end of Main Street that it hopes will lead to reinvestment and new development in that area of the city.
The new Main Street zone specifically prohibits drive-through restaurants, and the council has said it would make the new rules retroactive in an attempt to save the historic St. John the Evangelist Church, located on the corner of Thirlmere Avenue and Main Street, from being torn down by Cafua Management, the Massachusetts-based developer that wants to build a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts on the west side of the city.
A public hearing and final vote on the new Thornton Heights Commercial zone and the new Main Street Community Commercial zone is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 19.
Also on Monday, the council unanimously approved new rules that would allow restaurants, in certain areas of the city, to provide outdoor seating for their patrons under specific guidelines, including requiring the business to get a license from the city and to provide adequate insurance.