On a windy day, it is not unusual for newspapers to blow through Karen Becker's yard. Often, those papers stay on her property, lodging comfortably in her shrubbery.
"When the bins get full and the door is left open, and you get that northwest wind, they just start blowing down the street — and I have the kind of sticky bushes where they just get caught and collect there," said Becker.
Becker has lived at the corner of Dead Run Drive and Georgetown Pike for 24 years, and subsequently, she has lived near the recycling bins at Cooper Middle School for 24 years. In March, she and three of her neighbors decided that enough was enough, and they filed a complaint with the Fairfax County Zoning Enforcement office.
"There are seven of us that have been fairly vocal," said Becker. "We are the seven closest to the bins, and we've lived with it for a lot of years, and we've lived with the mess, and we just feel that if it's a private company and McLean Trees wants money, then let them find a place that isn't so close to my home."
For 35 years, Richard Poole served as the chair of the McLean Trees committee. As chair, one of Poole's first moves was to create a newspaper recycling program to raise money for the purchase and planting of trees throughout the community. For more than 30 years, newspaper bins have sat on the grounds of Cooper Middle School, and the subsequent recycling has brought in about $15,000 annually to the Trees committee. Poole passed away in March, and Eric Simpson stepped into his position as chair, never thinking that the recycling bins would ever become the source of community controversy.
"They've been there forever," said Simpson. "I, as a kid, used to play at Cooper, and I remember them there."
On May 1, a neighbor confronted the driver of the recycling truck, and demanded that the bins be taken away.
"Apparently the neighbor assailed the driver and threatened to have him arrested if he didn't get those bins out of there right away," said MCA board member Frank Crandall.
Sufficiently startled, the driver did as the neighbor asked. When Simpson asked the recycling company to bring the bins back, they said they would only do so when they were sure that there would be no legal repercussions.
RECENT CONSTRUCTION at Cooper may be the spark that lit the flame. The school recently had several trailers erected in the back of the property, and this in turn resulted in the bins being moved from their usual location.
"The newspaper bins got moved down the access road to make way for construction, and so they moved closer to the neighbor which really sent him over the edge," said Simpson.
According to Karen Becker, the bins were moved and placed in such a way that her neighbors could not even access the gate to their yard.
"The sidewalk was totally blocked and it was just a mess," said Becker.
However, even in their old location, the bins caused problems for nearby residents.
"There are broken toilets left there, old computers and miscellaneous garbage," said Becker. "They are totally unsupervised. The recycling company is good, but when people want to dump trash, they dump trash."
Becker said the bins cause problems for Cooper as well.
"Cooper school is desperate for parking, and those bins take up six spaces," she said. "It's a nightmare through there in the morning and then you add these bins and the trash that comes with them, and it's just a difficult situation."
It is not just the neighbors who are unhappy with the bins.
"The school itself has also wished that the paper bins would leave," said Simpson, Trees chairman. "I think that perhaps it is an inconvenience to the school… but in terms of the greater good of the community, it gets more out of those bins than the three parking spaces that Cooper loses in the long term."
Crandall agrees and said that the pros of the recycling bins surely outweigh the cons.
"Considering the amount of good that the activity has done for so many years, it would seem a shame to let three or four angry neighbors totally destroy the thing," said Crandall.
SIMPSON, THE MCA and the disgruntled neighbors have all turned to Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois' office for direction on the matter. According to Rosemary Ryan, a legislative aid in DuBois' office, the neighbors' complaints do have some standing because technically, the zoning laws do not allow private recycling bins to be placed in a non-industrial area. However, when Poole first had the bins placed at Cooper, opposition to the program was never voiced, and subsequently, zoning issues were never addressed.
"It's like anything else that flies under the radar for 50 years," said Ryan. "If no one had complained, then the zoning guys would never have gone down there to look. The school has nothing in writing. This has been going on for 35 years without any written agreement."
Dranesville School Board Representative Jane Strauss has been attempting to negotiate with the Fairfax County School Board, but has not had much luck. Strauss said that the school will most likely allow the recycling bins to remain at Cooper for one more year, but that after that, a new location will have to be found.
Simpson expects the bins to be returned to Cooper within the next week or two. After that, he and the other members of the Trees committee must find another location, or come up with an alternate way to raise money.
"This has allowed us to continually be renewing McLean," said Simpson. "We haven't had to resort to the kind of active fundraising that a lot of not-for-profits use because we've had this kind of steady stream of money. To be without it in the future is really going to test us."
According to Ryan, the McLean Community Center has been approached as a possible new location for the bins, but that "it wasn't dancing in the streets about having the Dumpsters left there either." However, Ryan remains optimistic about finding a solution, and said that all avenues must be explored.
"We can't lose this, this is a real treasured piece of McLean," she said.
Karen Becker does not have a problem with the concept of the recycling bins, she simply does not understand why they are not moved to a more commercial location.
"Why not a great location like the public library where there is a dead-end access road between it and the community center?" asked Becker. "Or another spot would be over behind Greenberry's, or the public parking lot behind Giant. There are other places in McLean that are not right next to my house... I'm an active recycler and I believe everybody should do it, but it can be done better. If McLean Trees needs money, I'll make a donation."
Frank Crandall said that he is simply disappointed in the way the situation was handled.
"This whole thing with the neighbors is unfortunate," said Crandall. "One would think that there could have been some accommodation. If they were bothered about some aspect of it, why didn't they go to the Trees committee and talk to them?"
MCA president Susan Turner said that the removal of the bins has not gone unnoticed.
"All I can say is that there are a heck of a lot of people who do their recycling there because I have gotten so many call this week, so I hope this gets resolved quickly," said Turner.
The Fairfax County Zoning Administration office is reviewing the case at their meeting this Thursday.