MARIETTA, Pa. - It was bad enough when Tom Armstrong brought goats and chickens onto his property in this impeccably restored mill town on the Susquehanna River, his neighbors say. But this summer, they say, he went too far when he moved in three sex offenders.

The former tough-on-crime state legislator quietly opened his doors to the men in June, shattering the serenity of the borough of 2,700 and scattering his own family.

"I'm not happy having sex offenders living next to my children," said Wendy Alkinburgh, a mother of four children younger than 7. "I used to let them play in the backyard, with me at the kitchen window. I can't do that anymore."

After residents packed community meetings, circulated flyers with the men's pictures, and pressed officials for action, the borough zoning board ruled that Armstrong had violated an ordinance limiting the number of unrelated people who can live together.

He said he planned to appeal and was convinced that once the community "is educated about who sex offenders are," neighbors would be more welcoming.

"These are fantastic guys," Armstrong, 49, a genial Republican who was voted out of office in 2002, said in his Victorian-decorated living room with two of his tenants.

Now an insurance salesman who has held a number of jobs, including landlord, controller, janitorial service owner, commercial property developer, Amish buggy operator, and goat-meat salesman, Armstrong said he was motivated by faith to help sex offenders who are struggling to find housing as cities across the country adopt tougher laws to keep them out.

"There are 160 men in state prisons that are able to come home, but they can't because they don't have anywhere to go," said Armstrong. "Ultimately, we need to find more homes for them in Lancaster County."

During his 12 years as a state representative, Armstrong adopted tough stands on abortion, taxes and crime, but took up the issue of prisoners' rights about eight years ago, after his brother was arrested for exposing himself.

Armstrong began mentoring prisoners through Justice and Mercy, a local volunteer program, and saw sex offenders sitting in jail because they had nowhere to go. Last spring, he helped four of them move into a rented home in Conestoga that he planned to expand to accommodate 30, but they were driven out by angry neighbors.

So, in the "What-would-Jesus-do?" spirit, he decided to take three of the men - convicted of rape, molesting a 15-year-old girl, and downloading child pornography - into his 15-room, century-old home. They each pay $100 a week in rent.

The move is temporary, while he makes another stab at a group setting, this one three miles away in Columbia, if he can get state approval and funding.

In the past, he has taken in veterans, and Marietta's zoning law, which states that up to four unrelated people may live together, was never an issue, he said. The key word, apparently, is may.

"The decision of the borough is that may means may or may not," said Armstrong's attorney, Jim Clymer. "In this case, the zoning officer decided that may means may not."

Borough officials did not respond to calls for interviews.

Opening his home to sex offenders has split up Armstrong's own family. His 16-year-old daughter cannot live there because one of the men, convicted rapist Richard Owen, is not permitted to reside with minors.

Armstrong said she and his wife, Janice, moved out in June to care for Janice Armstrong's critically ill mother in Lancaster, not because of the boarders. "I didn't tear apart my family," he said

The mother and daughter, who are still in Lancaster, say they are happy to help out.

"I'm fine with the guys being there," Janice Armstrong said. Her mother died Aug. 12, but she will remain at the home to sell it.

Christine Armstrong, who is home-schooled, said that her father "wouldn't bring anyone he wouldn't trust into his home," and that she liked living in Lancaster.

"They're good men," she said. On Saturday nights, she sleeps at a neighbor's house in Marietta because she has a Sunday-morning paper route.

Armstrong's son, Tom, 19, recently moved to a nearby apartment and is attending college.

After his brother's conviction, for which he served five years in jail, Armstrong decided that restrictive housing laws, which generally bar sex offenders from living near schools, playgrounds or day-care centers, were doing more harm than good.

In Pennsylvania, about 130 municipalities have passed residency restrictions for sex violators and many more are considering it, state parole board officials said. Opponents say that those laws do nothing to increase public safety and that prisoners end up spending more time in jail because they can't find housing.

Lauren Taylor, executive director of the state's Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, said even halfway houses shun sex offenders because they don't want to deal with community opposition. "We really need to get our arms around the issue, so we're looking at what really impacts public safety, not what makes us feel better," she said.

There are almost 13,000 sex offenders in the state registered with Megan's Law, which requires them to give their whereabouts to police, who notify the public through an online registry.

That's how Marietta neighbors found out about the town's newest residents. They say they're angrier at Armstrong, for not warning them, than at the men.

"It's like putting 10 overweight people in a grocery store and saying, 'Don't go near the doughnuts,' " said Lauren Hughes, 18, who lives across the street from Armstrong with her parents and 19-year-old sister.

Her mother, Mary Jo Hughes, called Armstrong "sanctimonious."

She said she had planned to move but didn't think she could sell her house after all the publicity. It's not the first time Armstrong has riled neighbors, she said, mentioning the goats and chickens.

"I don't lock my doors. I don't lock my cars. We don't have to. But he's making it that kind of place, and that bothers me," she said.

"Why can't they find an older home in Lancaster County farmland, rehab it, grow tomatoes, whatever?" she said.

Though Eric Umholtz, a father of four down the street, believes everyone deserves a second chance, he's not taking any chances with his own children. He showed them the men's pictures and told them to stay away.

That kind of scrutiny should ease people's fears, the men said. After all, there are two other Megan's Law offenders in Marietta whom nobody knew about until the controversy erupted.

"Would they rather have me living on my own in an isolated area or in a mentored, faith-based home where I'm being monitored?" asked Owen, 51, who has also served time for armed robbery and simple and indecent assault.

In May 2007, he was free to leave Lancaster County prison but had to stay an extra year because he didn't have housing.

"I've paid my debt, but society keeps footing the bill. How is that beneficial for anyone?" he asked.

His roommates are Paul Studdard, a former science librarian at Millersville University who was convicted of possessing child pornography, and Richard Barker, 68, who assaulted the minor.

Barker, who likes to walk his dog and attend the nearby Mennonite church - which has welcomed him as long as he has an escort - said he just wanted to live in peace. "We're crying out for people to help us," said the divorced father. "I want to become a part of the community and help the community."

And while they may sympathize, many neighbors would rather the men start over someplace else.

"They have a right to construct new lives," said Alkinburgh, whose children are barred from going into Armstrong's backyard. "But the crimes that they committed are inexcusable."

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.