West St. Paul loosened its rules on where sex offenders can live Monday night, after struggling to strike a balance between residents’ concerns and possible legal repercussions of its highly restrictive policy.

City officials approved the changes unanimously, but they expressed their reservations during the meeting.

“I’m not thrilled about changing it,” Mayor Jenny Halverson said.

Under the new ordinance, the city will restrict only where Level 2 and 3 sex offenders who have abused children can live, while also allowing offenders to live near group homes. Level 3 offenders are considered most likely to reoffend.

The council’s decision was made after a federal judge this winter allowed a low-risk sex offender to stay in West St. Paul while his lawsuit, which charged the city with undue restrictions, went through court. The judge noted that the suit had merit, signaling that the city could lose.

That caused city officials to reconsider aspects of their ordinance, one of the strictest in Minnesota. It barred all sex offenders — Levels 1, 2 and 3 — from living near group homes, as well as schools, churches, day-care centers and other places where children gather.

Advocates for housing sex offenders said such restrictions practically rendered offenders homeless.

“I could help a whole lot more and have a lot more houses [without restrictions],” said Gabrielle Gipson, who rents properties to offenders.

Other experts said the restrictions don’t reduce sex crimes and may be unconstitutional, which could lead to legal battles. Nevertheless, many elected leaders from dozens of Minnesota cities are going ahead and risking lawsuits, noting that residents often demand such restrictions. One recent example came from West St. Paul’s neighbor, Inver Grove Heights.

There, an ordinance was proposed in September to allow sex offenders to live near schools and day-care centers if they were staying with an immediate family member. But residents protested, launching a 700-signature petition and filling a City Council meeting.

Though council members voiced concern about getting sued over undue restrictions, they vetoed the family member exception.

“Nobody wants anybody who’s nasty living next to them,” said Rosemary Piekarski Krech, an Inver Grove Heights council member.

The right to feel safe

Two years ago, 39 Minnesota cities had residency restrictions. Now, according to the state Department of Corrections, 83 cities and two counties have such laws, including 36 in the metro.

There are 17,800 sex offenders across Minnesota, including 724 who are civilly committed through the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and thousands who have already served their time, are in prison or on probation.

West St. Paul has 49 sex offenders, including one Level 3 offender who was planning to move there this month, city officials said.

Tom Evenstad, 52, a Level 1 offender, sued the city last fall in federal court, saying that its restrictions left him with almost nowhere to live.

“My thinking was, they’re violating my rights and there’s no way I’m going to stand for them telling me I can’t live somewhere,” Evenstad said.

Evenstad, who was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual assault 20 years ago with an 18-year-old victim, had been living in West St. Paul with a family friend at a home close to public transit and his job. Shortly after he moved in, police said he had to leave because he lived within 1,200 feet of a day-care center and a group home.

Adele Nicholas, Evenstad’s attorney, said she believes her client’s suit could challenge other Eighth Circuit cases establishing the rights of cities to restrict residency. Nicholas said the belief 15 years ago that sex offenders couldn’t be rehabilitated has been shown to be “a complete canard” by recent research.

Former West St. Paul Mayor Dave Meisinger disagreed. He said that sex offenders’ rights should be limited and that residents have the right to feel safe.

“At the time I had no problem with [the ordinance], and I have no problem with it now,” he said.

No family exception

In August 2016, Inver Grove Heights police informed residents that a Level 3 sex offender, John Joseph Kramer, was returning to the city to live with a family member. The residence was near a day-care center and a charter school.

Though Kramer soon moved out, the City Council quickly enacted a temporary ordinance barring sex offenders from living near schools, playgrounds and other child-friendly areas. When Kramer later wanted to move back to the same home, he found that he no longer could.

A year later, the City Council weighed an ordinance that would keep sex offenders at least 1,000 feet from places where children congregate, but it made an exception for offenders living with immediate family. The ordinance was similar to those in several neighboring cities; experts say that the stability that comes from living with family members can help prevent sex offenders from reoffending.

At a council meeting, Piekarski Krech said that more restrictive ordinances could trigger a lawsuit. The 70 people present said they wanted a tougher ordinance anyway.

“You five [members] who have the power here are going to answer to your decision,” said Howard Franson, a retired police officer. “You might not be re-elected.”

The council approved the 1,000-feet rule but without the family member exception. Mayor George Tourville said he did worry about sex offenders’ rights, but that he would err on safety’s side.

Nevertheless, Grant Duwe, research director for the state Corrections Department, said data show that such restrictions wouldn’t have prevented the subsequent sex crimes of 224 sex offenders released between 1990 and 2002.

“The individuals who commit sex offenses know those whom they victimize,” Duwe said. “We found that [residency restrictions] wouldn’t have influenced a single one.”

The League of Minnesota Cities, the Minnesota Association of Townships and the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities haven’t taken a position on sex offender residency restrictions. Pat Beety, the league’s attorney, said cities have the right to enact such ordinances.

“They’re not stepping over the line and doing anything unconstitutional,” she said.