CANTON, Ohio — After taking a class that covered global warming last year, Jill Saylor decided to save energy by drying her laundry on a clothesline at her mobile home.
“I figured trailer parks were the one place left where hanging your laundry was actually still allowed,” she said, standing in front of her tidy yellow mobile home on an impeccably manicured lawn.
But she was wrong. Like the majority of the 60 million people who now live in the country’s roughly 300,000 private communities, Ms. Saylor was forbidden to dry her laundry outside because many people viewed it as an eyesore, not unlike storing junk cars in driveways, and a marker of poverty that lowers property values.
In the last year, however, state lawmakers in Colorado, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont have overridden these local rules with legislation protecting the right to hang laundry outdoors, citing environmental concerns since clothes dryers use at least 6 percent of all household electricity consumption.
Florida and Utah already had such laws, and similar bills are being considered in Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia, clothesline advocates say.
The new laws have provoked a debate. Proponents argue they should not be prohibited by their neighbors or local community agreements from saving on energy bills or acting in an environmentally minded way. Opponents say the laws lifting bans erode local property rights and undermine the autonomy of private communities.
“It’s already hard enough to sell a house in this economy,” said Frank Rathbun, a spokesman for the national Community Associations Institute, an advocacy and education organization in Alexandria, Va., for community associations. “And when it comes to clotheslines, it should be up to each community association, not state lawmakers, to set rules, much like it is with rules involving parking, architectural guidelines or pets.”
As much a cultural clash as a political and economic one, the issue is causing tensions as homeowners, landlords and property managers have traded nasty letters and threats of legal action.
“I think sheets dangling in the wind are beautiful if they’re helping the environment,” said Mary Lou Sayer, 88, who was told firmly by fellow residents at her condominium in Concord, N.H., that she could not hang her laundry outdoors after her daughter recently suggested she do so to save energy.
Richard Jacques, 63, president of the condominium’s board, said he moved to the community specifically for its strict regulations. “Those rules are why when I look out my window I now see birds, trees and flowers, not laundry,” he said.
Driven in part by the same nostalgia that has restored the popularity of canning and private vegetable gardens, the right-to-dry movement has spawned an eclectic coalition.
“The issue has brought together younger folks who are more pro-environment and very older folks who remember a time before clotheslines became synonymous with being too poor to afford a dryer,” said a Democratic lawmaker from Virginia, State Senator Linda T. Puller, who introduced a bill last session that would prohibit community associations in the state from restricting the use of “wind energy drying devices” — i.e., clotheslines.
At least eight states already limit the ability of homeowners associations to restrict the installation of solar-energy systems, and legal experts are debating whether clotheslines might qualify.
“It seems like such a mundane thing, hanging laundry, and yet it draws in all these questions about individual rights, private property, class, aesthetics, the environment,” said Steven Lake, a British filmmaker who is releasing a documentary next May called “Drying for Freedom,” about the clothesline debate in the United States.
The film follows the actual case of feuding neighbors in Verona, Miss., where the police say one man shot and killed another last year because he was tired of telling the man to stop hanging his laundry outside.
Jeanne Bridgforth, a real estate agent in Richmond, Va., said that while she had no personal opinion on clotheslines, most of her clients were not thrilled with the idea of seeing their neighbors’ underwear blowing in the breeze.
She recalled how she was unable to sell a beautifully restored Victorian home in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond because it looked out onto a neighbor’s laundry hanging from a second-story back porch. In June, the house went into foreclosure.
“Where does it end?” Ms. Bridgforth said of the legislative push to prevent housing associations from forbidding clotheslines.
Dwight Merriam, a lawyer from Hartford and an expert in zoning law, dismissed this concern.
“This is not some slippery slope toward government micromanaging of private agreements,” Mr. Merriam said, adding, however, that for these state laws to succeed they need to exempt existing agreements.
One of the biggest barriers to change, he said, is that most housing compacts that were written more than 30 or so years ago allow rules to be altered only if 80 percent to 100 percent of the association members attend a meeting and vote, which rarely happens.
Ms. Saylor, from the mobile home park, said, “Pressure makes a difference.” After a petition calling on the owner of the property where she lived to reverse the prohibition against line drying laundry, she said, the owner recently acquiesced.
But Alexander Lee, a lawyer in Concord, N.H., who runs a Web site, Project Laundry List to promote hanging clothes to dry, said the actual electricity consumption by dryers was probably three times as much as federal estimates because those estimates did not take into account actual use at laundromats and in multifamily homes.
Change promises to be slow, said Mr. Lee, 35. “There are a lot of kids these days who don’t even know what a clothespin is,” he said. “They think it’s a potato chip clip.”