The building inspector who approved permits for the Lamont Street House Where nine mental patients died in a fire last week has been placed on indefinite administrative leave by the city, the mayor's office said yesterday.
The action was taken in the case of James L. Ferguson of Upper Marlboro, a veteran of seven years with the city, who approved the Lamont street home for group occupancy despite its lack of a fire escape and fire doors.
Chief Building inspector Ralph Spencer said the absence of the doors and fire escape were violations of the city building code that any inspector should have noted.
Ivanhoe Donaldson, general assistant to mayor Marion Barry, said action against Ferguson was taken April 12, the day after the fatal fire. Donaldson said he hopes to interview Ferguson and a second building inspector, who, he did not identify, some time today for a report he is preparing for the mayor on why the building received an occupancy permit.
Meanwhile, Barry made unannounced visits to two of the 38 city-operated or contract group homes, and found both equipped with fire escapes and free of major safety violations.
A halfway house at 1825 13th St. NW for inmates from Lorton Reformatory was discovered short two fire exting.uishers and an emergency shelter for evicted families at 1531 P St. NW needed a safety fastener on a basement door, but otehrwise the home met city requirements.
"I hope they are all like this but I suspect they are not," said Barry. He is scheduled to receive a report today from teams of health, fire and building inspectors who have been checking the 38 homes for the past two days.
The city has been looking since the fire not only at the safety of group homes but where they should be located.
Proposed zoning changes designed to extend the homes into single-family home neighborhoods have been accepted by the D. C. Zoning Commission for a public hearing May 21.
At present such homes are permitted only in neighborhoods characterized by row houses and apartments.
In action last Thursday the commission also agreed to extend for another 120 days emergency legislation barring the opening of any new group homes housing 30 or more people.
The proposed changes would provide that the homes such as halfway houses for mental patients and alcoholics could be located anywhere in the city provided they meet "all applicable code and licensing requirements" and "not have an adverse effect on the neighborhood because of traffic, noise or operations."
In some cases only one group home will be permitted per square block.
The changes redefine such current zoning categories as nursing homes, halfway houses, social service centers, charitable institutions and convalescent homes as "community-based residential facilities."
Such a facility would be designated "for persons who have a common need for treatment, rehabilitation, assistance or supervision on their daily living."
Excluded from the proposed zoning changes would be homes for criminal offenders, which would remain restricted to apartment and town house neighborhoods.
Predictably, initial community reaction to the proposed changes has been mixed.
"There are people in the neighborhood who want to kick them all out. There are a lot of us who don't feel that's necessary," said Bill Middleton, a planning department official and advisory neighborhood commissioner in the Dupont Circle area.
"In the  years I've worked in zoning it is the most complex issue I've ever seen," Middleton said.
Supporting the complexities are visible fears that have presented deinstitutionalization in the District of Columbia as a Jekyll and Hyde anomaly.
"I have an office on K Street and I can tell you that many people released from St. Elizabeths spend their time walking the streets. They're dirty. You wonder if they've eaten," said Yetta W. Galiber, executive director of the city's information center for handicapped individuals.
With proper planning, emphasizing proper licensing and staffing support services, the homes can be successful, Galiber said.
"Citizens, I think, are truly concerned and care but they are worried that people will dump [handicapped] people in their communities without providing the services they need to allow them to lead meaningful lives," she said.
The city, under varios court orders and agreements, is required to establish nearly 150 group homes or cooperaive apartments for the mentally ill, mentally retarded and homeless over the next several years.
The homes will remove more than 1,100 inmates from various social service institutions, including St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill.