Let those colors fly

Homeowners associations' anti-green rules, such as clothesline crackdowns, hurt the environment

August 29, 2008|By Stan Cox | Stan Cox,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Susana Tregobov dries clothes on a line behind her Timonium townhouse, saving energy and money. But her homeowners association has ordered her to bring in the laundry. The crackdown came after a neighbor complained that the clothesline "makes our community look like Dundalk."

Ms. Tregobov and her husband plan to fight for their right to a clothesline, but the odds are against them. Although Maryland recently passed a law protecting homeowners' rights to erect solar panels for generating electricity, it is still legal here for communities to ban solar clothes-drying.

Twenty percent of Americans now live in homes subject to rules set by homeowners associations. These private imitation governments have sweeping powers to dictate almost any aspect of a member's property, from the size of the residence down to changes in trim color and the placement of a basketball hoop.

In the view of the associations, people hand over control of such things when they buy their home, so they have no legitimate gripe. But a growing number of state and local governments are deciding that when homeowners associations ban eco-friendly practices, they violate the property rights of their members and damage everyone's right to a habitable planet.

In recent years, a dozen state legislatures have passed laws that restrict the ability of homeowners associations to ban solar panels and solar water heaters. Florida and Colorado now protect the rights of homeowners to replace irrigated, chemically dependent lawns with more natural landscaping that requires little or no extra water or other artificial life support. And Hawaii has become the fourth state to give legal protection to people who dare to defy their homeowners associations by putting up that most economical of all energy-saving devices, the clothesline.

The more restrictive associations cling to outdated standards that treat necessary features of an ecologically resilient future - renewable energy devices, clotheslines, fans in windows, awnings, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, compost bins, natural landscaping - as eyesores to be buried under restrictions or banned outright.

Meanwhile, associations commonly encourage or require large, centrally air-conditioned square footages, two-car garages, lawn sprinkler systems or synthetic lawn fertilizers and weed killers. You'd think that in 2008, community leaders would be embarrassed to enforce overconsumption and pollution, but these property cops seem determined to impose their narrow aesthetic preferences on everyone else.

Critics say that only a strong federal law can effectively protect America's 60 million homeowners association residents from anti-green rules. One bill, the Solar Opportunity and Local Access Rights (SOLAR) Act, is designed to do just that, but it languishes in Congress with only one co-sponsor.

The energy to restrain overbearing homeowners associations may have to come from the grass roots. As families struggle in coming years to keep up with rising grocery and utility bills, on top of their mortgage payments and homeowners association dues, they may well put the heat on lawmakers to protect their right to money-saving conservation, renewable energy and edible landscaping.

A small but growing number of associations are encouraging green practices. But let's see them push harder: Set strict limits on house sizes, ban pesticides and leaf blowers, maybe even discount association dues for energy conservers. These are rules we all can live with.

They also raise a dilemma. Rousing appeals to individual freedom and property rights can be effective in, say, winning Susana Tregobov her right to dry in Baltimore's suburbs. But as a vehicle for environmental causes, the property-rights argument can backfire. In its more fatuous forms, it can be a favorite weapon of anti-environmentalists, who would doubtless use it to obstruct green homeowners association rules.

We can debate the details of the rules, but we have to keep our eye on the ball - that blue-green ball we all live on. We must enforce universal rights, not just individual rights. With human-made climatic catastrophe looming, neighborhood groups have an ethical responsibility not only to protect their own turf but also to lighten the burden we all put on an ecosphere that belongs to everyone and to no one.

Stan Cox, author of "Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine," is lead scientist for the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He wrote this article for the institute's Prairie Writers Circle.

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