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January|February 2004
The Queue Crew By Brian Montopoli
Shark Hunt By Dashka Slater
The Right to Dry By Dusty Horwitt
Peruvian Guilty By Jason Felch
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By Stephen Gillers

The Right to Dry

Laundry on the line.

By Dusty Horwitt

AFTER MORE THAN 30 YEARS IN NEW YORK, in 1976 Ed Triglia moved to New Port Richey, Fla., seeking a new home and a sunny spot for his clothesline. He built a house with an outdoor line in Timber Oaks, a 2,000-home community reserved primarily for retirees. There, Triglia says, he discreetly hung his sheets and towels in the sun for nearly 20 years.

But in 1995, the elected homeowners' association of Timber Oaks decided it didn't want Triglia's clothes flapping in the breeze. When it asked the retired builder not to dry them on the line and he persisted, it sued him. After an eight-month battle, however, it was the homeowners' association that was hung out to dry. The association lost its case under a 1980 Florida law that invalidated prohibitions on "solar collectors, clotheslines, or other energy devices based on renewable resources." Triglia got to keep his clothesline, and Timber Oaks had to pay his $23,475 in legal fees.

"They can't tell nobody not to have a clothesline," the 63-year-old Triglia said from the home where his linens now hang, disdained but undisturbed, behind some orange and tangerine trees. "They threw away a lot of the community's money."

Florida is the only state in the country with a law specifically protecting clothesline users from such restrictions. Elsewhere, thousands of homeowners' associations and apartments and at least one local government have prohibited or restricted the drying of laundry outdoors, generally claiming that clotheslines obstruct views and are an eyesore. In California, about seven million people can't hang their clothes in public because of the policies of about 40,000 community associations.

Listening to Richard Monson, the president of the California Association of Homeowners Associations, you would think that homeowners ought to be as worried about clotheslines as about vermin or graffiti. A clothesline in a neighborhood can lower property values by "15 percent," Monson is fond of saying. "Modern homeowners don't like people's underwear in public. It's just unsightly."

Two years ago, Doonesbury mocked such sentiments with a series of cartoons that featured police officers apprehending fugitive clothesline users. "Step away from the laundry!" an officer barked in one of the strips, set in a stuffy condo community in the midst of California's energy crisis.

In the clothesline wars, everyone is a zealot. The pro-clothesline movement's champion is Alexander Lee, the 29-year-old founder of Project Laundry List, a Vermont-based organization that promotes the right to use clotheslines, or, as Lee calls it, the "right to dry." The organization's website features statistics on the energy consumption of clothes dryers, a model right-to-dry statute, back issues of the group's newsletter "Hanging Out" (circulation: 800), and a statement that "Project Laundry List encourages civil disobedience." The group also sponsors the annual clothesline-themed Hanging Out Day every April 19, right around Earth Day.

Lee's crusade against the evils of the automatic clothes dryer began in 1995, when, as a student at Vermont's Middlebury College, he heard a speech by Helen Caldicott, a co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "She said if we all hung out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear power industry," Lee recalled. Lee's mother had air-dried his family's clothes while he was growing up, and he realized that he'd found his inspiration. He founded Project Laundry List "almost immediately."

Lee's case for the clothesline rests largely on its potential to reduce energy consumption. He has lobbied hard to preserve, or win back, the right to dry—and to convince people to give up their automatic dryers. "One of the most basic steps that we could take toward decreasing our energy consumption is hanging out our clothes," he wrote in a 2002 article in the Albany Law Environmental Outlook Journal.

On an annual basis, electric dryers in the United States consume the rough equivalent of 30 million tons of coal—the output of the nation's 15 least productive nuclear reactors. That consumption is expensive: Estimates suggest that it costs the average household more than $100 a year to use a dryer.

But for Lee, the clothesline is not just about saving energy and money. He's hoping to liberate what one newspaper columnist called a "clothesline underground." Lee's website features a gallery of clothesline-related art. In his 2002 article, he writes of "the redeeming qualities of the clothesline—its Gestalt, its organic beauty, its simple functionality, the colorful panorama dancing on the line."

Lee acknowledges that clothesline advocates are often painted as silly. Richard McCormack learned that lesson when he pushed for right-to-dry legislation in the Vermont Senate in the 1990s. McCormack, then the majority leader, said that he was merely trying to secure "the right not to pollute," but "what I faced was really derisive mockery, even among friends." McCormack was left with the support of "New England old ladies who'd call up and say, 'God bless you, Senator McCormack. All my life, I've enjoyed putting my nose in the pillowcase that's out drying in the nice Vermont air.'"

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