Washington County passes new sex offender ordinance

CHIPLEY — Washington County commissioners passed an ordinance tightening residential requirements for registered sex offenders when the Board of County Commissioners met in regular session Thursday, February 18.

Previously, the ordinance stated registered sex offenders could not live within 1,000 feet of any school, designated public bus stop, daycare center, park, playground, or “other place where children regularly congregate.” The board approved a change to the ordinance which increases that distance restriction to 2,500 feet. Similar ordinances are already in effect within the city limits for most Washington County municipalities.

BOCC Chairman Tray Hawkins states the measure is meant to better protect Washington County’s children.

“Any time you can put a better ordinance in place to better protect the constituents, it’s a good thing,” said Hawkins. “We need to preserve and protect our community’s most vulnerable citizens and ensure that our constituents and their families feel safe on their own property and where they spend time as a family.”

Vernon resident Rebecca Finch, who has children ranging from ages one to three, was a driving force behind the change, a mission she has dedicated the last several years to completing.

“My husband and I were both born and raised in Washington County, and we both had fond memories of Hicks Park, so when we moved back home, we decided to purchase property near the park,” said Finch. “We had all these ideas about how happy and free our children would be growing up near this park, and I even made sure to check the location against public records to be sure there weren’t any registered offenders nearby.”

Soon after the Finches began construction on their new home, a registered sex offender under the Department of Corrections supervision moved to the neighborhood, at a distance Finch states was less than 1,000 feet of the park.

“We raised concerns about this, but what we found is that FDOC did not agree with us on the points used to measure the distance, or that Hicks Park was actually a park for that matter, since it did not have playground equipment.”

Although Washington County’s 88 sex offenders will be grandfathered in and not impacted at their current residence, Finch hopes the change will help prevent her situation from happening to anyone else.

“At 2,500 feet, we feel that covers a good distance for any location like this in the county,” she said. “The county commissioners have all been in agreement that we have to keep certain areas protected for our kids. We can’t let people encroach upon the places our families spend their time. I feel a lot better – it sends a message that the people in the county are not going to let their children be sitting ducks.”

Washington County Sheriff Kevin Crews also says he is glad to see the stricter ordinance in place.

“This ordinance strengthens what the state statute is already,” said Sheriff Crews. “As Sheriff, I take supervision of sex offenders very seriously, and we are vigilant about doing address verifications. With several city ordinances already in place where some of these offenders normally would have lived, it has pushed some of them into our county where there was less of a distance restriction. Now, that has changed. It’s all about keeping our community safe.”

This article originally appeared on Washington County News: Washington County passes new sex offender ordinance