SUNTREE — The Suntree Master Homeowners Association, one of Brevard County’s largest residential developments, may soon have one of the strictest policies in the state when it comes to allowing sexual offenders and sexual predators to live there.
The association is asking residents to amend its housing restrictive covenants, which would bar known sexual offenders and sexual predators from owning or renting there. Technically, it’s asking residents to approve expanding the zone of protection of city and county ordinances by restricting sex offenders from residing within 3,000 feet from places where children regularly congregate, essentially covering all of Suntree.
The proposed changes follow meetings with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office on what crimes are taking place on the Space Coast and what communities can do to prevent problems before they start.
“We thought being preventative was better than being reactive,” said Todd Foley, general manager of the homeowners association.
Lawyers and others familiar with fair housing statutes say what’s being proposed in Suntree likely is legal, as housing covenants generally have more power over a neighborhood’s make-up, much more so than those without official neighborhood guidelines.
Suntree, as residents often like to boast, is one of the most popular areas in Brevard. It’s made up of 4,500 households, including single-family homes, apartments and townhouses, as well as schools, day care centers, bike paths, walking trails, two 18-hole golf courses, several parks and 50 neighborhoods or sub-associations.
The covenant amendment is scheduled to be voted on at the association’s March 15 annual meeting.
People already living in Suntree who have been convicted of sex crimes could be grandfathered in if new guidelines are approved, but the association says it will determine that on a case-by-case basis.
“The restriction is intended to cover all persons qualifying as sexual offenders or sexual predators,” said Sonia Bosinger, the lawyer for the Suntree homeowners association, “however, for any offenders that may already be residing within the 3,000 foot zone of protection, Suntree will need to analyze each case individually to determine the parties’ respective rights and obligations.”
The proposed amendment comes just about a year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance about restrictions placed on renting or selling to convicted felons. The department’s concern was that certain races could be more adversely affected by such housing restrictions because of the of their higher number of arrests and convictions.
That’s not necessarily the case regarding what Suntree is proposing, said Ryan Poliakoff, a South Florida lawyer specializing in condo regulations and housing association issues. Poliakoff also is a regular columnist with FLORIDA TODAY.
HUD’s directives could limit the use of criminal records by homeowners associations when it comes to race, religion or gender but Suntree’s proposed policy seems to beyond that, said Poliakoff, who predicts more communities will follow suit on Suntree’s potential ban on sexual offenders and predators.
“If that ban is part of the association’s declaration of covenants, it’s my opinion it would survive a challenge both under Florida law and the Fair Housing Act,” Poliakoff said. “I think there is a concern within our society and our criminal justice system that sexual offenders are more likely to commit crimes in the future.”
Poliakoff noted that governments often restrict registered sexual offenders or predators from living within a certain distance from a school or park out of concern that the individual would commit the offense again.
“If the state has that concern, why is it not valid for the association to have that concern?” Poliakoff asked. “That probably gives the association the sufficient, substantially necessary interest to protect the children in their community by saying no sexual offender can own a unit or preside in the community.”
However, studies have produced varying findings when it comes to the likelihood that a sex offender will commit the same crime again. One study, nearly 20 years old, published in the “Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,” found that child molesters had a 13 percent reconviction rate for sexual offenses and a 37 percent reconviction rate for new, non-sex offenses over a five-year period. Whereas, another study found reconviction rates to be 20 percent for child molesters and about 23 percent for rapists.
Ultimately, Foley said, it’s about the safety of the residents of Suntree. The ban goes for both sex offenders and sexual predators. For the latter, a court must make a specific finding that an offender is a sexual predator because they’re considered a particular severe danger.
“You have to have done something pretty bad to get that designation,” Foley said. “A predator is someone a judge takes another look at and says ‘That’s someone that’s really dangerous.’”