Neighborhood rules on the line


Article Courtesy of  USA TODAY

By Deborah Sharp
Posted on Friday, December 10, 2004


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."

How to avoid future friction

About 75% of residents in homeowners associations reported great satisfaction with their communities, but 5% were highly dissatisfied, according to a poll conducted several years ago for the Community Associations Institute.

"The real problem is that people don't always know what they're getting into," says Alan Weinstein, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Taking these steps before buying can reduce future friction:

Find out if the house is part of a community association. If so, carefully weigh rules, known as covenants, conditions and restrictions. More than a third of buyers don't learn the bylaws until they move in.

Can you have clotheslines, pets, flags, satellite dishes, solar panels or pickups in the parking lot? All these and more cause homeowners problems.

Walk the community; talk to neighbors. Are they happy with how things are run? Do appearances - and rules regarding house color, architectural features and landscaping - suit your style?

What's the association's financial health? How much are assessments? What services do they pay for? Are they likely to increase?

By Deborah Sharp

Extreme cases


In some cases, disputes have been linked to deadly violence:

In suburban Chicago in July, a 75-year-old woman on a condominium board was fatally shot and her roommate seriously injured. The 67-year-old man accused in the case had been evicted and his possessions strewn in the yard after he failed to pay $640 in overdue assessments, $350 in court costs and $3,133 in attorney's fees.


In Arizona in 2003, Richard Glassel was sentenced to death for two murders at a 2000 meeting of the Ventana Lakes Homeowners Association. After a dispute with the retirement community over landscaping, Glassel, 65, came to the meeting and fatally shot two women and wounded three men.


In Dana Point, Calif., in March, a homeowner who'd been battling his association over property renovations was charged with attempted murder after allegedly beating and choking a 75-year-old woman who was a resident and board member.


When Madden won her clothesline case earlier this year, hundreds of clothesline-deprived homeowners in associations cheered her victory, says Alexander Lee of Concord, N.H., who heads Project Laundry List. The group, whose motto is "Right to Dry," touts outdoor clotheslines for energy conservation and environmental reasons.


Clothes dryers account for up to 6% of energy consumption in an average home, according to estimates from the Rocky Mountain Institute.


Lee says Madden's fight would have been more difficult if she lived in a homeowners association. Associations almost universally view clotheslines as threats to property values and symbols of tenement living. "They're banned all over the place," he says.


In Fort Lauderdale, Madden's clothesline is protected by a state law that encourages the use of solar power. Local governments are prohibited from banning devices that use renewable resources. Other states have similar laws, but only Florida and Utah specifically protect clotheslines.

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.

Emotional ties

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?' "