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Making Sustainability Legal: 9 Zombie Laws That Keep Cities From Going Green

These outdated laws forbid sustainable choices -- and here's what you can do to change them.

Photo Credit: Peter Blanchard


You’ve done your part, you good greenie, you. You’ve changed out the light bulbs, bought energy-saving appliances, learned to recycle, tuned up your bike, joined a co-op, and bought a transit pass and/or a fuel-efficient car. Now you’re looking around, wondering what to do next. With spring around the corner, maybe you’d like to hang out the wash on a sunny day. Or perhaps you could build an apartment in your basement to increase both your income and your neighborhood’s density….

Not so fast. Because this is the point at which your city government is very likely to swoop down in a flurry of paperwork and citations, telling you in no uncertain terms: No. You can’t do that. We don’t care how green it is, it’s also against the law.

The Sightline Institute in Seattle is compiling a list of zombie laws — outdated city ordinances and homeowners’ association policies that may once have served a purpose, but now mostly just get in the way of people’s desire to live more sustainably. Sightline's  Making Sustainability Legal Web site offers a couple of dozen examples — some obvious, some off-the-wall — and they’re looking to add to the list. Sightline executive director Alan Durning hopes this project will give inspiration to activists looking for easy battles that will result in big sustainability wins.

Here are nine examples of local laws that stand in the way of change, and need to be pulled off the books:

1. Clotheslines. Consider the facts. The clothes dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in the average American home. There’s nothing like the sweet smell of sheets and towels that have been freshly dried out in the air and sunshine. Nineteen states have already put in place laws that allow home solar installations of all kinds. So why do over half the homeowners’ associations in the US — including some in those 19 states — explicitly ban clotheslines in their neighborhoods? 

A gathering “right-to-dry” movement is rising up to challenge these rules, asserting that laws permitting solar hot water heaters and PV electrical cells must also permit solar-powered clothes drying technologies (that is, clotheslines). Model legislation is being proposed, and legal challenges are being launched. Take up your clothespins, America! You have nothing to lose but your big electricity bills.

2. Granny flats in suburban houses. The first step in making suburbs more sustainable is to increase their density. Those big lots usually have plenty of room to tuck a small apartment into the basement or over the garage; and allowing people to build them has all kinds of salutary effects. The extra rental income can help families afford their homes. The units increase the share of low-cost housing, thus expanding the economic and age diversity of the neighborhood. They allow families more flexibility in terms of elder care and launching young-adult kids; and also provide a new option to public employees like teachers or cops who may not be able to afford to live in the affluent neighborhoods they serve. They also enhance property values, increasing the tax base. And as the density goes up, so does the argument for building new amenities closer by, and increasing transit service to the area.

But most homeowners know how hard it is to get a legal permit to build such suites. City and county governments are still clinging to the same 1950s ordinances that created suburban sprawl in the first place. If we want to update our suburban infrastructure, simply letting people build infill housing that raises density is the first and most obvious step to take.

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