Good morning, Lake County.
Next month, if a Tampa crusader has her way, dozens of registered sex offenders from all over the country may be dumped into homes on remote property in east Lake County and into a trailer park in either east Lake or west Seminole. After that, 10 acres in the same area may be developed for more of them.
Have a nice day out there in Molesterville, Fla.
Just what you wanted to hear, isn't it? It's the sort of news that makes you feel as if you just jumped naked into a vat of ice water, especially if you live out toward Sorrento or Mount Plymouth. But can it happen? There are a lot of reasons that it might not happen, but area residents deserve to know what's being talked about. Let's look deeper.
The idea comes from anti-sex-offender crusader Barbara Farris, a 40-year-old woman won't say precisely where either the trailer park or the 10 acres are located. Farris, who lived for years in the Orlando area, also refused to provide the identity of the investors in the for-profit venture.
What she does say, however, is that she expects to have the first 35 sex offenders placed next week in two mobile-home parks, one in Polk County with "a beautiful lake view" and the other in either east Lake or west Seminole — she wasn't sure of the precise location.
She said the sex-offender "villages" will employ people who monitor the movements of the offenders and will provide vans with drivers to take them on trips to grocery stores and doctors and the like.
"Everybody thinks I've gone rogue or something, but my goal is to protect the kids," she said. "We're buying up property in the middle of nowhere. There are lot of places that we can relocate these offenders that are not in your backyard."
Not the first to try
Here's the question to which everyone wants an answer: Could such a thing really happen?
And here's the answer: Maybe.
If it depended on Farris alone, the answer would be no. The self-described real-estate-developer-turned–advocate doesn't have a string of successes. She has created several controversial organizations dedicated to teaching children how to protect themselves against sex offenders.
In her wake, she has left angry people who have complained to police about her methods and who have made wild claims about her on blogs dedicated to trashing her, her programs and her associates.
Farris doesn't answer straight questions with straight answers. She flies off on tangents and gives markedly varying stories when asked about basic parts of her proposal. She doesn't even know for certain where the trailer parks she intends to place sex offenders are located. She displays an appalling lack of knowledge about what's required by zoning rules to develop such "villages."
These aren't the marks of a leader who gets big projects done quickly.
However, there is no question that turning apartment complexes or trailer parks into havens for sex offenders is a business model that works. Farris and her mystery backers would not be the first to try it.
Take, for example, a sex offender named Randy Young, who in 2006 started buying properties in foreclosure that would meet the requirements for sex offenders. (Lake County requires that sex offenders register with the sheriff and provide information about where they live. They must choose homes that are more than 1,000 feet from any school, day-care, park or playground.)
Young and Farris, who aren't in business together, both say sex offenders have nowhere to live and often stay in tents or makeshift huts in wooded areas.
Young has said that he's doing the public a service by grouping sex offenders together. Neighbors understandably have a different point of view.
Granted, some sex offenders have earned the label for relatively trivial matters — for example, there are older teens who have sex with girlfriends who are 15, and there are boys who unknowingly downloaded pornography that featured minors.
And consider that Lake already has at least one "village" of sex offenders. About a dozen of them report living in motels near U.S. Highway 27 and Florida's Turnpike. A Sheriff's Office spokesman said deputies frequent the motels to verify addresses of the offenders, but complaints about them are rare. Last year, one of the offenders turned off his ankle monitor. Deputies quickly found him nearby.
Still, rapists and pedophiles also would be among those Farris seeks to house. And who would choose to raise a youngster next door to someone who has raped a child? Would you ever let your daughter play in the backyard alone? Could your son ride his bike to the end of the street without supervision? Everyone wants to feel safe in his own home, and few folks would be comfortable with a bunch of sex offenders next door.
However, sex offenders can't be legislated out of the county. Leper colonies have gone out of fashion. And somehow, 425 registered offenders have managed to find places to live — not in the woods — including 13 who declared that they live in the popular Villages retirement community.
Somehow, it seems more normal that sex offenders at least attempt to blend into the community where they live. It's not like they can hide. After all, they are listed on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's sex offender website at offender.fdle.state.fl.us/offender/homepage.do.
The most troubling part of Farris' proposal is that the sex offenders — or any convict — applying to her website, housingforoffenders.com, can come from anywhere. Lake would be importing sex offenders because its housing market happens to be in the dumps and an investor can make money by renting rooms to people who otherwise might have a hard time finding a home.
Wow. Talk about the unintended consequences of a economic downturn.
Farris' plan may be good for some sex offenders who are without family or friends to help them transition back into society. But it's of no benefit to Lake as a whole or to the neighbors of what would essentially be a voluntary concentration camp of sex offenders.
Is it me, or is Lake just getting more and more weird?
Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake