Bee Cupp jerks a thumb toward her living room window, toward the tan concrete Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters visible across the parking lot.

"I have a lot of feeling for that place," she said of the agency where she worked as a stenographer and plumbing supervisor for 25 of her 69 years before retiring in 1974.

"It was like family. It was a great place to work."

Then Cupp jerks the same thumb toward the floor of her neat, white, wood frame home on 40th Place in Hyattsville, 100 yards from the WSSC's doorstep.

"I also have a lot of feeling for this place," she said.

"That's why this is so difficult. I don't want them building an office building right in my back yard. It's like being between a rock and a hard place."

The "this" to which Bee Cupp refers is a dispute of 10 years standing in Hyattsville -- and one whose resolution will go a long way toward determing the future character of this 135-year-old city of 15,000 people seven miles from downtown Washington.

The staff of the WSSC, which supplies water and sewer service to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has grown as rapidly since World War II as the communities the agency serves. But its office space hasn't.

Once in 1953, then again in 1964, the commission added a wing to its headquarters at 4017 Hamilton St. Officials have wanted to add even more space since 1970 -- either by mounting more floors atop the existing four-story WSSC building or by constructing a two-story, 60,000-square-foot annex in the parking lot that abuts Bee Cupp's house.

WSSC officials note that they are spending more than $550,000 a year to rent office space in West Hyattsville and Laurel for the three WSSC departments that can't fit into the existing WSSC headquarters.

But to expand WSSC headquarters would be to bring more traffic, parking lots and air pollution to a residential neighborhood of fine Victorian houses and quiet, tree-shaded streets.

For these reasons, Hyattsville citizens groups -- many of them liberally populated by past and present WSSC employes -- have vigorously opposed any WSSC expansion. They have managed to block expansion three times since 1970, before the Hyattsville City Council and the Prince George's County Council.

An expansion proposal was last formally defeated before a WSSC hearing in November 1979. Afterwards, WSSC general manager Robert S. McGarry indicated that the agency would abandon expansion plans for the time being.

But all sides agree that it is nearly certain to arise again. The next time it does, the underlying fear of Hyattsville's civic and political leaders may be realized: WSSC may have to leave Hyattsville to obtain the office space it needs.

If the agency does go, it will not only take with it more than 1,500 jobs, but it will be leaving behind forever the Bee Cupps.

They are a group of about 300 WSSC retirees, most in their 60s and 70s, who have lived and worked in a one-mile square community much of their lives, who love both Hyattsville and the WSSC, who make Hyattsville the closest thing in the Washington area to a "company town."

Christine Middleton's "sledding story" epitomizes the way things used to be.

Middleton has lived at 3903 Kennedy St., three blocks from WSSC headquarters, since 1935. Now retired, she worked at WSSC for 25 years, at the same time raising five children.

One day early in her career, a stranger appeared at her desk and told her there was trouble with one of her daughters.

The daughter, it seems, had been sledding nearby and had sideswiped a phone pole. The man who found her, bleeding and crying, had no idea where her mother worked, and he couldn't persuade the frightened girl to tell him. So he tried the WSSC on a hunch -- and he was right.

"I wasn't surprised," Middleton said. "No one was. The commission and the city were so close."

So was the WSSC staff.

"We never forgot anyone's birthday," said Kathryn McClay, who retired from the maintenance and operations division in 1969. "We always put up streamers. And it extended into the community, too. You'd always see each other in the stores and the parks. You might say we grew up together."

And they have not lost touch wth each other. Eighty-seven retirees came to last fall's annual WSSC retiree soiree, the largest turnout in the seven years it has been held. More than two-thirds of those who attended lived in Hyattsville when they worked at the commission -- and still do.

Delores McDonough has lived in an apartment directly across Gallatin Street from WSSC headquarters since the Korean War. She loves to tell the story of how living so close to where she worked helped her hoodwink her doctor years ago.

"He ordered me to get more exercise," McDonough said, "and I said, 'But I walk to and from work four times a day!' So he gave in. I never told him how far I had to go."

Hyattsville politicians don't regard the WSSC headquarters question as a laughing matter, however.

Mayor Thomas Bass pleaded with a reporter not to "open up that subject again." His reason: "There isn't much we as a city government can do about it, even though we recognize the economic benefits having the WSSC brings.

"It's really up to the county council. If it came down to keeping the WSSC in Prince George's County or letting it go, I'm sure the county government would let them expand."

The more compelling issue, Bass said, is whether Bee Cupp and her fellow retirees will be squeezed out of Hyattsville if the WSSC departs.

"We have worked very hard to keep the tax rate down (it's 90 cents per $100 of assessed valuation), but that might not be possible if the WSSC leaves," said Bass, a 36-year-old telephone installer who serves part time as mayor.

Another fear that was hotly debated before the WSSC hearing last fall was what kind of tenant would replace the WSSC.

Several council members were accused of spreading rumors that a halfway house or drug rehabilitation center was in line to take over the property, although the members later denied doing so.

In any case, as retired WSSC secretary Ann Kidwell put it, "Maybe we'd do better to count our blessings."

Or as Bee Cupp says: "I went to one of the community meetings about the expansion, and I heard someone say, 'We have a sleeping giant in our midst.'

"I don't think it's a giant. But if it (the WSSC expansion) happens, it could change a lot of things for the worse."