Yarmouth’s town councilors are divided on a proposed ordinance to limit where some sex offenders can live, and probably will vote next week to hold a referendum in November.

Last month, the council was presented with a citizen petition calling for an ordinance to prevent certain registered sex offenders from moving into neighborhoods near schools. The council must either adopt the ordinance or send the proposal to voters.

Some councilors are opposed to residency limits that they say would restrict people’s liberties and would not improve public safety. Others think the proposal is a common-sense measure that could help prevent sexual crimes against children.

“If we adopted this ordinance and we were able to prevent one encounter, it would be worth it in my book,” Councilor James MacLeod said.

The idea for an ordinance first arose in October, after the Yarmouth School Department alerted parents that a registered sex offender convicted of possession of child pornography had moved into a residence on Glen Road, close to the town’s three schools. The man, Stefan Shaft, is one of three registered sex offenders living in the town of 8,300 people, according to the state’s public database.

The school department notice prompted some residents to ask the council for an ordinance to prevent sex offenders whose crimes involved children from moving into homes within a 750-foot radius of the three schools. The proposal did not attract enough support from councilors, leading resident Alison Hinson to collect about 750 petition signatures to force the issue.

In a letter to the council, Hinson said the ordinance was an obvious way to protect the town from sex offenders who prey on children. There haven’t been any incidents, but that doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen in the future, Hinson said.

“Many of us, including myself, were and continue to be surprised that Yarmouth does not have this ordinance,” she said. “The request to enact this ordinance is to put something in place that most residents already thought was law.”

The proposed restrictions would not apply to any of the three registered sex offenders already living in Yarmouth, but could apply to those who move to town in the future. The rules would apply only to those convicted of felony sex offenses against children 14 or younger.

The exclusion zone that the ordinance would create includes the town’s three public schools and North Yarmouth Academy and encompasses a significant part of Main Street and the town center. Violating the ordinance would incur a civil penalty with a minimum fine of $500 a day.

There are 2,718 active registered sex offenders in Maine, according to the Maine Sex Offender Registry. There is no state law restricting where sex offenders can live, but towns and cities can pass ordinances that apply to offenders whose victims were children.

A handful of Maine communities, including Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach, South Portland and Saco, have enacted ordinances similar to the one proposed in Yarmouth, often with little debate or opposition. But on the Yarmouth council there is active opposition to the proposal, making adoption unlikely.

“There is really no evidence that these sort of ordinances help,” said Councilor David Craig, who noted that the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations oppose such restrictions. “There is no sympathy out there for sex offenders, but when you take away people’s freedoms and personal liberties, you really have to be careful.”

Councilor Robert Waeldner said the ordinance could push offenders into areas where children were less supervised and more vulnerable. Sexual abuse against minors is also more likely to happen among family members than by a stranger, he said.

“There is no data out there that shows residency restrictions achieve their intended result, and we could be putting other children at risk,” Waeldner said.

In an email in March, Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said Yarmouth schools are the most supervised areas of town, and that a residency restriction might create a more harmful situation farther from the schools.

“Obviously, we want to keep sex offenders away from our students – I’m just not sure this proposed ordinance accomplishes that, and may create more angst and challenge than is necessary,” Dolloff said.

Councilor Pat Thompson, however, said it is important to keep sex offenders from moving in near schools, and she would vote for the council to enact the ordinance.

“I truly believe an additional tool in the police department’s box to help protect children is a no-brainer,” Thompson said. She said the 750 signatures on the petition are a sign of the popularity of the proposal, and that councilors should not let their personal opinions interfere with the will of the people.

If the issue ends up on the November ballot, both sides expect voters to approve it, despite councilor objections.

“Because it sounds like such a no-brainer, obvious thing to do, when it goes to referendum it will probably pass,” said Councilor Craig.