The D.C. Zoning Board ruled yesterday that a home operated by Roman Catholic nuns to care for dying AIDS patients in Northeast Washington does not comply with city zoning ordinances, raising a question about its ability to remain open.
In a 5-to-0 vote overturning a finding by the District's zoning administrator in December, the board held that the nuns, who are members of Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity order, have violated the terms of their occupancy permit at 2800 Otis Place by providing a place for AIDS patients who have nowhere else to go.
Yesterday's ruling was a victory for a contingent of neighbors who had appealed the earlier ruling. Saying they fear the presence of AIDS patients at the "Gift of Peace" home in their neighborhood, they contested what they believe is an unregulated medical facility foisted on them by city officials and the Archdiocese of Washington.
"Many people in the community raised questions because they allowed AIDS patients to roam at large," said Virgil Thompson, a local advisory neighborhood commissioner and leader of those protesting the home. "The neighbors don't want it to be a hospice for AIDS patients."
Archdiocesan officials expressed shock at the ruling, one calling it a "total surprise and an incredible disappointment."
"We had no inkling at all this was possible," said Jack Morrison, director of Catholic Charities. "We had a letter from the mayor and the zoning administrator welcoming us and saying what we were doing was okay."
The immediate impact of the ruling was unclear. Findings of the Zoning Board are enforced separately by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The Zoning Board must still issue a written ruling, which then could be appealed directly to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Mayor Marion Barry, who previously expressed support for the hospice, said through a spokesman yesterday that he was concerned about the board's ruling and "is going to try and figure out some means to help out the Catholic Church on this matter."
D.C. Commissioner of Public Health Reed V. Tuckson also expressed concern. "It would be very unfortunate if we were to lose the services of this very important housing alternative," he said. "We may be talking about technical zoning issues here, but this city has to face the reality that there are going to be our friends, relatives and neighbors who are going to need not only housing but facilities sensitive to the process of dying."
Morrison said that since the home opened in November, the nuns have cared for 25 AIDS patients, about 10 of whom have died. Most of those admitted for care are critically ill and unable to walk or care for themselves.
Edward Curry, acting staff director for the Zoning Board, said the nuns have operated the home under an occupancy permit issued in 1968 that allows charitable activities. But, he said, the nuns have substantially changed the use of the building since then by opening a hospice"We had no inkling at all this was possible."
-- Jack Morrison, director of Catholic Charities
that "does not fit" under the old permit.
D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) said he sympathized with neighbors and criticized the archdiocese for conducting what he described as a poor public relations effort.
But council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), who represents the area where the home is, played down neighborhood opposition.
"I don't think the whole community feels that way," Thomas said. "I think there is a need for that facility up there and I would hope they appeal the ruling."