Neighborhood rules on the line
Article Courtesy of USA TODAY
FORT LAUDERDALE — Poppy Madden has emerged as an unlikely hero in a campaign known as the "Laundry Wars." She has triumphed — twice — at City Hall for the right to hang her wash in the hot Florida sun.
"I'm still hanging my purple panties," Madden says. Her clothesline is protected from neighbors' complaints by a state law that encourages solar power — in this case, using the sun rather than a clothes dryer.
"Seeing clean laundry hanging in a yard is a lot less of a problem than having someone's loose dog leave a deposit on your lawn, she says."
The clothesline battle in this waterfront city is the latest chapter in a familiar story about the balance between personal freedom and community standards. Such disputes can stem from city codes, which was the case with Madden's clothesline, or from restrictions set by homeowners associations.
A record number of homeowners now reside in neighborhoods or condominiums under the often-strict rules of community associations. Some of the fiercest struggles occur over what associations deem acceptable, whether it's holiday flags, fences or the color of a front door.
Homeowners associations are essentially private governments. They assess dues to pay for maintenance and services, such as street lights, swimming pools, trash pickup and snow removal. In 1970, about 1% of U.S. households were members of such associations. Today about 17% of households, almost 52 million people, are in such communities, according to the national Community Associations Institute, which lobbies for members and managers of homeowners groups. About 10,000 homeowners associations are formed each year, and four out of five new houses are built in such communities.
The institute points out that complaints come from a small fraction of homeowners in the more than a quarter-million associations nationwide. Supporters such as the institute say associations protect property values and reduce financial burdens for cash-strapped municipalities.
But detractors, such as homeowners' rights groups, liken such associations to dictatorships. They say fines and foreclosures are penalties for personal expression. "There have to be restrictions, but they've done something more. They've taken away your property rights and your constitutional rights," says Elizabeth McMahon of the American Homeowners Resource Center in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The organization is a clearinghouse for allegations of abuse against homeowners by associations.
Several state legislatures recently tightened oversight on associations. Nevada beefed up the office of an ombudsman to handle homeowner complaints. Arizona and Florida enacted broad changes that include greater openness for association board meetings and financial records.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill this fall that would have required a homeowner to owe at least $2,500 in late fees before an association could begin foreclosure. But the state is still expected to create an agency to regulate associations and help resolve disputes.
"The core challenge is balancing the best interests of the community as a whole and the preferences of individual members. It's not an easy balance," says Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute. "Utopia doesn't exist, but most of them do a darn good job."
The state law forced city officials in May to dismiss the most recent complaint filed against Madden and her clothesline. A neighbor's objection four years earlier was also dismissed. The Florida law also protects clotheslines against homeowners associations. But few residents know their rights, and most abide by bans when threatened with legal action or fines.
Between bans by homeowners associations and the American love affair with convenience, clotheslines seem to be headed the way of the rotary-dial telephone and wind-up wristwatch. Already, eBay and other Internet sites feature vintage clothespins and laundry bags as collectibles.
Andrea VanSteenhouse, a Denver psychologist and co-author of the book The Clothesline, says hanging laundry outside has emotional appeal. Baby boomers wax poetic about it. Even men pour out tales of running through drying sheets or helping hang laundry at their mothers' knees, she says.
But Robert Strauss, a homebuilder who lodged the complaint about Madden's clothesline, says, "Give me a break." He built two $3 million houses along the waterfront on Madden's formerly modest block. "We're not living in the '50s," he says. "We're not driving Edsels. We have air conditioning in our homes now and clothes dryers."
Fort Lauderdale ruled that Madden could keep her clothesline in a side yard instead of the backyard, where it might offend boaters passing by on the canal behind her home.
"I objected to walking out of the new home I was building and seeing her underwear. And now she's flying it like a flag," Strauss says.
There's nothing new about restrictions aimed at clotheslines. Minnesota once prohibited men and women's underwear hanging on the same line.
"I understand they're protecting the image of the community. But it just seems so controlling, wanting to edit out any aspects of life and make it look like no one lives there," VanSteenhouse says.
As for Madden: "My friends in Europe say, 'What kind of country do you live in where people complain about laundry lines?' "
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