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OC city passes offender ban in parks, but doesn't own parks

January 26, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The city of Rancho Santa Margarita has approved a new law keeping sex offenders out of its parks. But the ordinance won't work without support from private homeowners associations.

The ban is based on Orange County's child safety zone ordinance. In effect, what it says is that child- or sex-offenders would not be able to enter a park without written permission. The language of the ordinance is straightforward, the issue is more complex for homeowners associations.

For the past 10 years the city of Rancho Santa Margarita has been ranked one of the safest cities in California. And it wants to stay that way.

On Wednesday city leaders adopted a new ordinance to ban child predators from parks.

"I believe that by enacting this we send a very strong message to the community at large, and especially to predators: That they are not welcome to be lurking in the parks in Rancho Santa Margarita," said Mayor Tony Beall.

But there's a catch: The city doesn't own a single park. All the parks are privately held by the city's homeowners associations.

"We went to the homeowners association insurer, and we said, 'Can we buy insurance in case we are sued?' And they said, 'Yes, but you would have to show that you were actively enforcing who came on the park,' which would mean in a beautiful park like this, we would have to put a fence around it," said Don Chadd, president of the Rancho Santa Margarita Landscape and Recreation Corporation (SAMLARC).

SAMLARC has the largest homeowner membership. Chadd says the ordinance could expose his and other associations to lawsuits.

"If we were to subsequently be sued because we took a property right from a resident who happened to be a sex offender and arrested on this property, we would be sued. Who knows what the courts will do," said Chadd.

The new ordinance is in effect but cannot be enforced until the associations sign off on it.

"That is an issue that their board of directors in each homeowners association will have to make for themselves. Once they do that, this ordinance will be enforced to the full extent in those parks," said Beall.

For now, SAMLARC is not taking a position on the ordinance. In the meantime, the city is planning to build South County's largest regional park. When it is completed, the ordinance will be in effect and enforced there.