Department of Human Resources Director Albert P. Russo told residents at a public hearing last week that the city has little choice but to approve zoning changes that would increase the number of group homes in the District.

"It's a question of humanity, understanding and court orders, without which I doubt in my own mind, any of this would come to pass," he said.

Russo made his remarks to more than 100 people who came to the D.C. City Council chambers Saturday to prepare for what is expected to be a showdown before the D.C. Zoning Commission later this month.

On Feb. 15, residents opposing controversial zoning changes that would allow group homes in any neighborhood in the city will pit their arguments against those of citizens supporting the zoning revisions.

The three-hour meeting Saturday was called by the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations and members of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

For nearly a year, District officials and concerned residents have discussed the proposed changes, which stemmed from complaints that group homes are clustered in a few wards in the city.

Under present city law, group homes are allowed only in areas zoned for rowhouses and apartments. The zoning changes would abolish this limitation. Officials estimate that there are more than 400 group homes in the city, most of them east of Rock Creek Park.

Several officials at the meeting said the need for new zoning comes, in part, from court orders requiring the transfer of many persons, such as the mentally disabled, from institutions to community programs.

The proposed zoning changes would redefine group homes, health care facilities and the number of unrelated individuals that constitute a family for zoning purposes. Included in the definitions are facilities for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded and halfway houses for ex-offenders.

In addition, the proposals would establish the size of a group home family and specify how close group homes could be located to each other.

Joy Chapper, a special assistant to the Corporation Counsel, echoed Russo's remarks when she said court orders and some federal funding requirements have literally driven the city's institutional programs into the streets.

For instance, to comply with funding requirements for a federal program from which the city receives money, in 1977 the District closed Maple Glen, one of its juvenile institutions in Laurel, Md., and placed the 85 juveniles living there in community homes. Under the same requirements, the city must now find group homes each year for 40 to 45 youths who might otherwise be placed at Maple Glen.

Chapper cited other cases where the city must find community homes for institutionalized persons under its care. Last June, a federal court judge ordered the closing of Forest Haven, the city institution for mentally retarded people. Previously, a federal court judge had ordered the transfer of many patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the federally run institution for the mentally ill, to community homes.

Neither institution has been able to adequately fulfill the orders, Chapper said, because zoning restrictions have limited the development of alternative living arrangements for the residents.

Harry Walsh, director of community-based programs for the D.C. Department of Corrections, said about 3,800 adults are confined in D.C. jails, and 225 ex-offenders are in community halfway houses.

"Offenders will come second always, to the best interest of the community," he told residents who asked about criminal assaults against persons who live near halfway houses. "We remind them that work release is a privilege. It is not a right. Any intraction can send them back. We don't wait for the court. We can proceed on a citizen's complaint, and he can be returned," Walsh said.

An hour of the meeting was devoted to a panel of nine people advocating the rights of the mentally ill and the mentally retarded.

Volunteers and staff members from the Mental Health Law Project, the Green Door and Woodley House mental health programs and the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens (DCARC) discussed their programs, future goals, along with lawsuits and court orders affecting the mentally disabled. Two former District residents who had struggled with mental illness spoke for themselves.

Donalda Mosby, assistant executive director of DCARC, said the District has approximately 20,000 mentally retarded people, and more than 900 live at Forest Haven.

Mosby said the residents needed training and education in their communities because "studies reveal that people in institutions suffer from apathy and stunted growth."

The Office of Planning and Development (OPD) will develop a position on the issue after collecting data it lacks.

James Gibson, assistant administrator of OPD, said the new administration has not reviewed all factors in the proposals. He said a 27-member task force of OPD and city government officials is compiling information needed to assess the proposed zoning changes, such as the number of court orders requiring that residents of institutions be moved into the community.

Missing data includes the number of people involved, the type of care they need, city budget constraints in providing that care and a precise charting of group homes throughout the city.

"City policy must establish a balance between protecting the rights of all citizens while also acting in a humane manner," Gibson said.

Gibson said OPD would attempt to compile the information by the time of the public hearing, or soon after. If necessary, OPD would support a continuation of the zoning hearings, he said.

The final decision to continue the hearings would rest with the D.C. Zoning Commission.