Strong board grapples with sex-offender housing limits

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STRONG — Selectmen are facing a request from townspeople to prohibit registered sex offenders from living in specific areas of town.

The request was made after a group of people alerted town officials that a resident at Valley Brook housing on Main Street is a lifetime registrant on the Sex Offender Registry. The housing complex is next to Strong Elementary School. 

“I had some members of the public with some concerns that there’s no sex offenders ordinance here in town,” Selectman Rodney Spiller said at a recent board meeting. Those same residents are uneasy about the man’s presence in the development, and are concerned about having children visit them with him living there.

The group asked selectmen if the town could develop an ordinance to restrict future lifetime registered sex offenders from such close proximity to children.

The board could develop a town ordinance to prohibit future sex offenders from residing within defined distances from day care centers, parks, playgrounds, schools and other public locations where children gather, but town officials said such an ordinance would require enforcement and the town doesn’t have a constable to do that.

Registered sex offenders on parole are prohibited from living in federally funded housing or near a school, but the lifetime registrant who raised the concern is not on parole.

The man, who is 54 years old, was convicted of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 years, and rape and abuse of a child, in Massachusetts in 1987.

Spiller said he checked with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and confirmed that when an offender is no longer on probation or parole, that person doesn’t have any residential restrictions unless a landlord requires them.

The Valley Brook development has 20 apartments, and all are restricted to tenants who are older than 62, are disabled or are low-income.

“They are allowed to live there unless the town has an ordinance,” Spiller said. He suggested that residents might start a petition to present to Occupied Properties management company, which manages the complex, but he acknowledged that step might be futile.

“I’d take your (housing) contract and see Pine Tree Legal and call the attorney general,” suggested Selectman Mike Pond. “We’re not going to be able to do anything.”

Lt. David St. Laurent of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department said that he and other officers are required to follow the law on sex offenders and they have no authority to ask him to leave.

The man has served his sentence and is only required to notify the local law enforcement agency of where he is living. St. Laurent said he notified the Strong Elementary School principal, posted a photo at the Strong Post Office and told the manager of the Valley Brook housing development that his tenant was a registered sex offender.

That was about five years ago.

“We aren’t allowed to go door to door to notify people the way we used to,” he said.

Rolande and Clem Begin, now retired and living in Carrabassett Valley, were the former property managers of several USDA-funded Rural Development housing units, including Valley Brook.

Rolande Begin said by phone that she and her husband only required a prospective tenant to complete an application form, which included questions about the individual’s criminal background. If the prospective tenant admitted to prior offenses on the form, the individual could either be refused or approved.

Applications, she said, were processed by their office secretary, so if that employee did not note any criminal offenses, the Begins would not have any reason to suspect they had a registered sex offender living in one of their units.

“We didn’t do background checks,” she said. “We just went by what they said on the application.”

Occupied Properties, the new management company for nine of USDA’s Rural Development properties in Maine, has stricter policies, including a background check paid by the applicant.

Developing a screening policy is the choice of each management company and not that of USDA’s Rural Development housing program, according to Cristen Dilworth, Occupied Property’s owner. USDA’s eligibility for subsidies depend only on the prospective tenants meeting age, disability and income requirements, she said.

“It’s been up to the management company to develop the selection criteria,” she said. “Rural Development will not get involved in helping to select tenants.”

A USDA Rural Development agency spokesperson confirmed that the program leaves selection of tenants entirely to management companies.

In a prepared statement, Public Affairs Specialist Emily Cannon said, “It is the responsibility of multi-family housing property owners and managers to ensure their tenants are in compliance with federal, state and local laws.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which also subsidizes public housing, has screened out registered lifetime sex offenders since June 25, 2001, by law. Tenants who were provided housing subsidies before 2001 were grandfathered.

“So, through no management error, there may be tenants living on site that moved in before that date,” according to HUD’s policy statements available online. “In these cases, there is no law or HUD regulation that requires eviction or subsidy termination.”

The state’s Sex Offender Registry is maintained by the Maine State Police’s State Bureau of Identification. The registration is updated daily. Registrants must verify their addresses quarterly, semiannually or yearly and notify the bureau of any change of address.

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