Clothesline: Solar Device or Eyesore?

Nov 1, 2007

A battle is brewing in neighborhoods across the nation to bring back what was once part of America’s backyard landscape – the clothesline. This green movement touts the clothesline as an environmentally friendly way to dry laundry. But about 60 million Americans live in community associations that prohibit or restrict clotheslines. As New Hampshire Public Radio’s Amy Quinton reports, right-to-dry advocates are hoping legislation will change that. 

It’s a sunny fall day in Nashua and Vicki Meeghar wishes she could be hanging her laundry outside to dry.

Ax: I had the clothesline right out here…

She walks out on her condominium’s back porch at Ledgewood Hills, a planned community with 376 units. Meeghar points to where her clothesline had hung for about a year.

Ax: It was attached to a plant bracket there and strung up and attached to the light there and it was only about 10 or 12 yards long and for the most part you couldn’t see from the road you couldn’t see the clothes.

Two large walls separate her unit from the others and a stand of evergreens grow between her porch and the road. But despite her efforts to find an innocuous location, Meeghar received a letter reminding her that clotheslines are forbidden at Ledgewood Hills. Her clothesline would have to come down. Meeghar says she saw her clothesline as a small step in conserving energy and fighting climate change.

Ax: I wish there would be some acknowledgement that this is an idea whose time has come, this is the 21st century, and we can’t just continue to use energy willy-nilly.

Community associations site aesthetics as the main reason for the restrictions. David Fredette is President of the Ledgewood Hills Association.

Ax: I would think if you drove around and saw 50 clotheslines hanging out on everyone’s deck that to me that would not be very appealing to look at, the rules are their to protect people to protect their asset, to protect their investment, and that’s the largest investment people have in their lives so they feel very strongly about it.

But right to dry advocates argue that protecting that investment by denying clotheslines is costly to the environment. Concord resident Alexander Lee is founder of Project Laundry List, a group that is advocating for legislation that would allow people to use clotheslines, even in community associations that ban them.

Ax: People realize that the government isn’t going to solve the global warming problem and they want to be able to do something in their own homes and they’re not even allowed to do a very simple thing that they could do to save a tremendous amount of energy, six to ten percent of residential energy use goes towards the electric dryer.  

Recently Lee held what he called a “Right to Dry Summit” at a Concord apartment. Surrounded by pictures of clothesline art and old washboards, about a half dozen advocates from as far away as California and Florida came to share their frustrations over the issue.

Ax: If everybody used clotheslines then the issue of property value would not come up ..years ago everybody had one, yes, until they told us it was low class.

Twelve states already have laws that protect clotheslines – some couch it in language that recognizes it as a low-tech solar dryer – a renewable energy device. Democratic Representative Suzanne Harvey of Nashua is sponsoring right to dry legislation in New Hampshire.

Ax: I live in a detached condo community so we all have our own separate homes, but we’re not allowed to hang out anything, and I think in a state like NH where people tend to think in terms of living the way you want to as long as you’re not hurting someone else, this is the right kind of legislation.

Harvey says her legislation would allow associations to consider aesthetics or placement of clotheslines, but they could not ban them. Community Association Institute spokesman Frank Rathbun says passing state legislation is the wrong way to solve the issue. The group lobbies on behalf of the 60 million Americans living in neighborhoods governed by covenant.

Ax: Anything that can contribute to improving our environment should definitely be considered but the question is, where should it be considered, by what body, should the government get involved in 300-thousand community and condominium associations, or are those decisions best left to the homeowners in each association, we think it’s the latter.

Rathbun says part of the problem is that governing regulations in many associations need to be reviewed. He says in some cases, the bylaws were written several decades ago and may not make any sense today. But Abigail Beutler, who lives in a Nashua condo that bans clotheslines, says it’s not easy to change those rules.

Ax: That would take two-thirds of the people here agreeing to even bringing it up to a vote so I don’t think anyone would feel that strongly enough about it that they would go around with petitions to gain back a freedom they should have had in the first place.

But the Right to Dry legislation may have a hard time passing in New Hampshire. Its sponsor hopes that if it doesn’t pass, it will at least invoke what she thinks is a needed conversation about energy conservation and global warming.