CONCORD, N.H. - They say they only want to protect their "right to dry." And in three New England states, advocates for clotheslines - yes, clotheslines, strung across the yard, draped with socks and sheets - are pushing for new laws to liberate residents whose neighbors won't let them hang laundry outside.
Homeowners' associations, which enforce bans on clotheslines at thousands of residential developments across the country, say the rules are needed to prevent flapping laundry from dragging down property values. But in an age of paper over plastic, as people try to take small steps to protect the environment, more residents are chafing at the restrictions. And some lawmakers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut are taking it a step further, seeking legislation that would guarantee the freedom to let one's garments flutter in the breeze.
"People think it's silly, but what's silly is to worry so much about having to look at your neighbors' undies that you would prevent them from conserving energy," said Vermont state Senator Dick McCormack, a sponsor of "right to dry" legislation. "We're not making a big deal over clotheslines; we're making a big deal over global warming."
If successful, the measures in Vermont and Connecticut would be the first in New England, and among the first in the country, to protect the age-old custom of air-drying laundry. (The proposal in New Hampshire died in committee, but proponents say they plan to try again next session.)
In a society where most people own dryers, the idea of clotheslines seems to have retained its broad popular appeal. Tide detergent comes in a "clean breeze" scent, described as "the fresh scent of laundry line-dried in a clean breeze," and the signature creations of Yankee Candle Co. include "clean cotton," a scent that evokes "sun-dried cotton with green notes, white flowers, and a hint of lemon," according to the two companies' websites.
In some minds, though, clotheslines connote a landscape of poverty rather than flowering fields. Opponents of the proposed legislation say homeowners' groups have the right to protect property values by forbidding practices they consider unsightly, such as storing junk cars in driveways - and hanging wet laundry outside.
"If you imagine driving into a community where the yards have clothes hanging all over the place, I think the aesthetics, the curb appeal, and probably the home values would be affected by that, because you can't let one homeowner do it and say no to the next," said Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, a national group based in Virginia that represents thousands of homeowner and condominium associations, many of which restrict clotheslines.
The institute encourages environmentalism, "But we believe the homeowners in each association should determine the rules under which they live," Rathbun said.
Mary Lou Sayer, an energetic grandmother in Concord, N.H., used her electric dryer for years without a second thought, but vowed to stop after hearing a talk by her friend Alexander Lee, the founder of Project Laundry List, a group based in Concord that supports clothesline drying.
Inspired by the thought that she could curb her consumption of energy, Sayer asked the board of directors at the senior housing complex where she lives to relax the restriction on clotheslines, but they voted not to change the rule, she said.
"Our generation doesn't understand," said Sayer, who described herself as "over 85," but declined to give her exact age. "People are uneducated, or they don't believe in it. They've been told there's an unlimited supply of oil, or they're just too old to change. I hope they're teaching it in schools, but I think it's too late. I have a granddaughter, and I don't know what her future will be."
Determined to stick to her plan, Sayer stopped using her dryer and started hanging her clothes inside the house to dry. On Monday, a pair of red flannel pajama pants dangled from the ceiling fan in her office, pillowcases were draped over the fan in her living room, above the coffee table, and multicolored socks hung from metal lighting fixtures in the sunroom, with its view of 4-foot snowbanks and towering pine and hemlock trees.
Her new method is more work than machine drying, and her towels are not as soft, Sayer said, but she has noticed a drop in her electric bill. In the typical household, said Lee, the dryer is the second biggest household user of electricity, after the refrigerator. Electric bills for dryers vary widely, said Lee; the Rocky Mountain Institute has used an estimated average cost of $85 per year.
Project Laundry List, which keeps track of neighborhoods where outdoor drying is banned, has found no-clothesline zones across the country, usually in subdivisions or condominium complexes. A handful of towns throughout the country also prohibit outdoor drying within their borders.
Diane White, owner of CB Property Management in Keene, N.H., said clotheslines are not allowed at the 11 condominium associations the company manages in New Hampshire and Vermont. She said the restrictions have sparked few objections.
"None of them allow it, and it's always been that way," she said. "Most people who live in condos don't want to see other people's clothes."
The sponsor of the failed New Hampshire legislation, state Representative Suzanne Harvey of Nashua, said she faces similar rules in her neighborhood.
"We live in a detached condo, and we can't even shake out a rug on the back patio," she said.
She said her measure did not falter because legislators oppose clotheslines, but because some legislators did not want to interfere with homeowners' associations. Harvey, a Democrat, said she plans to file a version of the same legislation again if she is reelected.
Lee, the director of Project Laundry List, said Americans' aversion to the sight of laundry is not shared by other countries such as China and Italy, where electric clothes dryers are far less common and clotheslines dot the countryside, offending no one.
What the American clothesline needs is a new image, he said.
"We want Martha [Stewart] and Oprah [Winfrey] to make the clothesline into a pennant of eco-chic," he said, "instead of a flag of poverty."
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 Boston Globe