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Unsightly solutions to removing wrong-headed restrictions

A "right to dry" movement has persuaded the governments of Ontario, Nova Scotia and six U.S. states to overrule clothesline bans with legislation

We hear a lot about red tape that stifles innovation, personal freedom and adds unnecessary costs. But usually these regulations are at least aimed at some common good, even as they misfire and cause collateral damage.

What about red tape that runs counter to major public policy initiatives like energy security, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and power saving – all for the sake of keeping up appearances?

An article just published by Seattle-based Sightline Institute goes after regulations that do just that: the simple ban on clotheslines. The large number of clothesline bans in B.C. that force B.C. residents to add unnecessary loads to our power grid when a simple, free alternative abounds.

Sightline writer Jon Howlandpoints out that drying clothes outdoors is forbidden in almost all strata corporations in B.C. It’s part of the boilerplate for strata bylaws that is widely adopted because it makes sure laundry doesn’t hang out on balconies, which is presumed to be unsightly. It forces people to use dryers, which make up 9% of residential electricity consumption, in spite of a B.C. Energy Plan goal of decreasing average household electricity consumption by 1,000 kw/year. Howland estimates that households that convert from electricity-powered clothes drying to “hang drying” could get 90% of the way to that goal. BC Hydro’s Power Smart claims that an electric clothes dryer typically uses more electricity than any other home appliance except the refrigerator (and the water heater, if it’s electric). The Crown corporation wants to meet 50% of the province’s incremental resource needs through conservation by 2020, yet we’re too hung up on neat and clean appearances to allow clotheslines. Those were the reasons given by strata lawyers and property managers interviewed by Howland on why the clothesline ban clause is so widely used.

It could well be that the majority of property owners like this ban, but some jurisdictions have realized that having neat-looking building exteriors at the expense of burning fossil fuels, flooding farmland for dams or expanding nuclear power is stupid public policy.

A “right to dry” movement has persuaded the governments of Ontario, Nova Scotia and six U.S. states to overrule clothesline bans with legislation, although Ontario’s law only covers homes with backyards, not apartments or condos with common outdoor spaces. Another 13 U.S. states protect clotheslines under solar access legislation, demonstrating their understanding of changes required to wean themselves off unsustainable energy sources.

What this really comes down to is our perceptions. Nobody gets hurt when a neighbour hangs clothes out on a line. We just like everything to be “neat and clean.” Another description of forced dryer use in today’s world would be “wasteful and harmful.” Clotheslines are part of a long list of other endangered bans that conflict with widely embraced “green” policies. As they are with clotheslines, city residents are gaining a new appreciation of bikes-on-balconies (also widely banned), blemished fruits and vegetables (mostly thrown out), vanishing wetlands (except if you’re building a university at Whistler), industrial lands, edible landscapes, pesticide-free lawns, backyard beehives and rooftop solar heaters and panels.

Remember when smoking wasn’t considered unsightly or ugly? Or when freeways sweeping through cities were considered clean, swift ways to move around? People learn. Times change. So should clothesline bans.

To paraphrase economist/author Jeff Rubin: your world is about to get a whole lot messier, and that’s not a bad thing. •