The subject was a touchy one, and the testimony was sometimes angry.
But at the conclusion of two days of hearings last week, the opinion voiced most often was that group homes, excluding those for ex-offenders, should be allowed in all residential neighborhoods, providing the homes are small, licensed by the city and are supervised closely to discourage shoddy programs from flourishing.
Spokesmen from nearly 60 community groups appeared at the hearing before the D.C. Zoning Commission last week to air their views on controversial proposals for group home zoning.
If adopted, the proposals would open all city neighborhoods to group homes for ex-offenders, youths, the homeless, elderly and the mentally disabled. The homes are now restricted to areas zoned for rowhouses and apartment buildings.
Whether the proposals are adopted or not, it will in no way stop the court-ordered relocation of thousands of homeless and mentally disabled people from institution to metropolitan area neighborhoods, city officials have said.
Until June 7, citizens unable to present their views at the hearing can file written statements on the proposals in room 9A of the District Building. The record will then be closed while the zoning commission reviews the written statements and testimony from the public hearings.
If the zoning commission decides to adopt some form of the proposals, their proposal will be submitted to the National Capital Planning Commission for comment and review. After the planning commission reviews the suggestions, the zoning commission will take final action during one of its regular monthly zoning meetings. A final decision is expected this summer.
During the hearings, which first began last November, the proposals were supported by Mayor Marion Barry and city officials facing pressure from court decress to move thousands of homeless youth and mentally disabled people into the community.
The decade-old controversy over whether all neighboorhoods should share "the burden" of group homes was resurrected in 1976 when adams-morgan residents complained to city officials that their neighborhoods were overrun with group homes.
At the hearing last week, residents from Adams-Morgan and neighborhoods with similar problems said they would continue to accept their responsibility for group homes, if other neighborhoods, such as Georgetown and Cleveland Park which now have few group homes or none at all, share an equal responsibility.
Georgetown resident Evan Hinton dismissed the suggestion with a toss of her head and remarks that drew red faces from moe city officials and scattered applause from the audience of about 70 people.
"Georgetown is already overcrowded. The will in no way welcome afflicted newcomers or unafflicted ones," thundered Hinton, who represented the Citizens Association of Georgetown.
Then, directing her remarks to James O. Gibson, director of the Office of Planning and Development, the office that wrote the zoning proposals, Hinton said the remark Georgetowners hear most often "from Mr. Gibson and the mayor's office is, 'All you want to do is protect your neighborhood.' What in the hell is better than protecting our neighborhoods?" she asked. "You ought to be helping us."
The audience applauded again when Charlene Drew Jarvis, the recently elected Ward 4 City Council member, said residents in her ward had suggested that the city exhaust space for group homes under current zoning regulations before opening up all neighborhoods to group home development.
Russell Perry, representing a community group of ex-offenders, supported residents' view that proposals affecting group homes for ex-offenders should be treated separately from those for youths or the mentally disabled.
He said group homes for ex-offenders should be closely supervised and be able to provide residents with work and educational and personal counseling. Most importantly, however, Perry said, the homes should be small, housing at most 16 people.
"If you permit halfway houses to house, 30, 40 . . . 70 ex-offenders the administrators of those halfway houses don't have the capabilities of handling them," Perry said. "The half-way houses springing up now are basically used by opportunists who want to crowd the facilities" to make money.
Citizens from the areas of Foggy Bottom-West End and Dupont Circle pointed out that most of their neighborhoods were zoned for commercial use, rowhouses and apartment buildings. Under the proposals, their neighborhoods could be flooded with group homes housing as many as 200 people.
Relating the problems in his neighborhood, which includes the D.C. Jail, a foster care home and a hospital, William MacFarland told the commission: "We're alreadly in a pickle over there."
The most comprehensive set of suggestions was presented by Ann Hughes Hargrove, the Adams-Morgan resident whose letter to the city planning department in 1976 touched off the controversy. Hargrove, who is considered by many city residents and officials to be an expert on group homes, spoke for an ad hoc group representing a diversity of neighborhoods, including Friendship Heights, Foggy Bottom and West End, Upper Cardozo and Dupont Circle.
Among the group's recommendations:
Homes should be limited to no more than 15 people, including supervisory staff.
Existing group homes should be licensed or closed until licensing is approved.
Inspections of group homes by city licensing offices should be closely coordinated and carried out using uniform building and safety codes.
A plan for outplacement of St. Elizabeths' patients and the future of that facility should be developed to determine the effect upon the city.
In summary, the proposals before the zoning commission would allow homes for four people in all city neighborhoods as a matter of right. Larger homes would be restricted to one per square block. Group homes that would exceed spacing or size restrictions would only be allowed with approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Group homes of any size, however, would be all allowed without restriction in commercial districts.
The number of staff members allowed to live in each home could vary without restriction. Parking spaces required for each home would also vary.
Among the groups that supported the concept of the proposals were the United Planning Organization, the D.C. Association of Retarded Citizens and the Children's Defense Fund.
In opposition were the Citizens Association of Georgetown, South Manor Neighborhood Association and various citizens.