Katie Roberts' environmental ethic runs strong. She grew up on a farm, now works for an eco-conscious company and has renovated the inside of her Odenton home to conserve energy. But when she decided to add a rain barrel to an out-of-sight nook of her backyard, she had a problem: her community association.
"The barrels are very attractive and they're the same color as my deck and would fit in aesthetically, but anything bigger than 2 feet is considered a statue," she said of the barrel, made locally from an old wooden wine cask. "It's great that Maryland has tax incentives and otherwise supports doing great things for the environment, but many homeowners associations don't let you do them."
As greening becomes more mainstream and is encouraged through tax incentives - even the Maryland governor's mansion has solar panels - more people are running afoul of their neighbors, associations and historic preservationists. Safety and security are sometimes cited by the opposition, but the main issue with rain barrels, solar panels, wind turbines, new windows and clotheslines seems to be aesthetics.
In response, some states, including Maryland, are considering laws to force neighborhood associations into submission.
Jeanne N. Ketley, president of Maryland Homeowners' Association Inc., an advocacy group, said lawmakers have taken action in many states because community associations have been slow to modernize covenants and have not struck a good balance between communities' and individuals' needs.
"Associations really do need to get ahead of the curve rather than wait for a homeowner to ask for these things," she said, noting that one person's conservation efforts can aid everyone, such as in a condo building that shares in one utility or water bill.
"Environmentalism is the future. They need to look at what they can do and propose it to membership. But very few are doing it because people don't like change," Ketley said.
Consider the clothesline. It's a simple device, an efficient, solar-powered dryer. But it's prohibited by many associations.
"Some people just think it's only what poor people do," said Alexander Lee, founder and executive director of the New Hampshire-based Project Laundry List, a clothesline advocacy. "But to more people it's becoming the eco-chic thing to do."
Already, a handful of states, including Florida, Maine, Vermont and Hawaii, have passed laws requiring associations to allow clotheslines in most circumstances. But bills in Maryland, Virginia, Oregon and New Hampshire have failed.
That's just one eco-feature in a few states. There are an estimated 300,000 community associations covering some 60 million residents, and they all have some kind of restrictions. And certainly, the problems aren't always an official ban. Sometimes, neighbors just don't want to look at anyone's flapping underwear.
Maryland Del. Sue Hecht, a Democrat from Frederick, home to a BP Solar manufacturing facility, said sometimes people need a little push to accept change. She has supported tax incentives for solar and wind energy systems and utilities' greater use of solar power. She also won passage last year of a bill prohibiting unreasonable limitations on solar panels, though she believes many groups don't know about the law and continue to reject applications.
Hecht hopes to spread the word and may introduce a new bill to support wind energy, though passage could be trickier because turbines are more visible than panels. She also plans to promote a bill that has failed twice, the "right to dry" bill that would require associations to allow clotheslines.
She said education is key to winning support. Neighbors just need to understand the energy and financial savings.
"As energy keeps increasing as an issue and climate change remains a big issue, I'm delighted that people are interested and concerned," she said. "We didn't have a dryer until I was in high school. We canned. We recycled. We lost that for a number of years and it's coming back. Thank goodness."
Among the few homeowners associations addressing environmental issues in their covenants is the community of Wilde Lake in Columbia. But there are some rules. An application is required for rain barrels, compost piles, solar panels and clotheslines. It must include such things as a site plan, drawings or pictures and proposed landscaping.
No standing water is allowed at any time in the rain barrels and it's also "recommended that the color/style of the rain barrels complement the color/style of the house." For clotheslines, only umbrella or retractable versions are allowed, and they must be removed when not in use. Solar panels must be flush with the roof.
Some neighbors say rules are important. Having a third party provide guidelines and make decisions can be useful, especially if the relationship between neighbors is already strained.