When the D.C. public school system drafted a tentative agreement to lease an unused portion of a school building in Northeast Washington as office space, local residents objected. The development would disrupt the neighborhood and set a dangerous precedent, they protested at a recent meeting.

But the lesson they soon learned troubled them more than the proposed conversion of the Lovejoy School at 12th and D streets, located in a residential zone.

Under municipal law, the District government is exempt from the zoning regulations that restrict the way private and commercial owners may use their property.

For years, community activists have argued that neighborhoods need to be protected from the unrestricted use of District-owned property, which can put jails, halfway houses and administrative offices into their midst without formal public scrutiny.

A majority of D.C. Council members seem to have reached a consensus this year that the use of District-owned property should be regulated, but a tactical disagreement has stalled their efforts to change the law.

A four-year-old bill revived by Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and cosponsored by nine of the other 12 council members would make D.C. zoning regulations binding on the municipal government. But Council Chairman David A. Clarke favors a different approach. As a result, the proposed legislation, opposed by Mayor Marion Barry, is at a stalemate, according to council members and people who have followed the issue closely.

Hearings on the bill were held in 1986, when Barry attempted to house 50 inmates in a former Ward 6 police station at the end of a block of row houses. Barry abandoned his plan in the face of strong community opposition. The bill never went to a vote.

"The intent is to make the city play by the same rules that it imposes on the private sector," Kane said. "At least the city would have to argue its case ... and the community would have a chance to support or oppose it."

As the law now stands, some officials said, it is unclear whether tenants who lease city-owned property must conform to the zoning code.

Clarke, who is holding the bill in the committee of the whole, which is comprised of all 13 council members, said he agrees that there should be an independent check on the mayor's public land use policies but considers Kane's bill self-defeating.

Subjecting administration proposals to review by the zoning commission or the board of zoning adjustment would accomplish little, because both rely on the advice of the D.C. Office of Planning, itself an arm of the administration, Clarke said.

"I believe that the executive branch has a stranglehold on the zoning board through the office of planning," Clarke said.

Clarke has reintroduced a bill he first proposed in 1986 to create an independent staff for the zoning commission and the board of zoning adjustment and is working to rally enough council support for it to override an expected veto by Barry. If that bill succeeds, Clarke said, he will bring Kane's bill to a vote. Otherwise, he will propose that the council rule on proposed uses of city-owned property that do not conform to zoning regulations.

District officials said Kane's bill would impair the government's ability to set up such service facilities as group homes for the mentally ill or the homeless. Forcing the government to go through normal channels would add long delays to government projects, said Garland Pinckston, deputy director of the mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Relations.

Pinckston disputed arguments that citizens are cut out of the planning process under the current law. "They can always approach their elected officials about {land use plans}, and their elected officials, I think, will be responsive," Pinckston said.

School officials fear that Kane's bill would undercut their freedom to raise funds by leasing unused property.

While Kane endorses Clarke's plan to establish an independent zoning staff, supporters of her bill believe it should go forward without delay.

"It is not an adequate remedy, but an urgently needed remedy," said Dorn McGrath Jr., chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and a professor of urban and regional planning at George Washington University. McGrath said the law is needed to counter haphazard land use policies.

"If it's doing something that's at variance with the underlying zoning, then the D.C. government should be willing to put itself through the same hoops that a private citizen has to go through," said Ann Hughes Hargrove of the Citizens Planning Coalition, a community organization that monitors urban planning issues.

Kane's bill would not affect public facilities or lease arrangements already in place. City officials have not determined the extent to which D.C. properties currently depart from zoning guidelines.

According to the D.C. office that coordinates community-based residential facilities, only seven of more than 300 community-based facilities under the Department of Human Services are on District-owned property, of which four would have required a zoning variance. One of eight halfway houses run by the Department of Corrections would have required a variance, the office reported.