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Old codes a window on past

Citrus cattlemen, relax. You don't have to change your travel plans.

The city of Crystal River will still allow you to drive your herds through town along U.S. 19 if you want. Just keep 'em off the sidewalks, please.

Life will soon get easier for City Manager Roger Baltz, too.

No longer will he be legally responsible for rounding up animals running loose in the city. In addition, his office will no longer be the designated dump site for animals that come down with communicable diseases.

But in other areas, the law hasn't budged. It's still illegal in Crystal River to kill a mockingbird. Or a sparrow, water bird or squirrel, for that matter. Heaven help you if you molest a bird nest.

And if you happen to find an animal carcass on your hands, you had better start digging fast. The law gives you only six hours to get rid of it.

Just as people have junk drawers for the odds and ends that help keep the household functioning, governments have places where they stash the little laws that keep communities civilized.

Somewhere, for instance, it has to be spelled out when a dog must be on a leash. Or when a person's lawn must be mowed.

In Crystal River, it's called the Code Book. And like your junk drawer, the Code Book has to be cleaned up every few years.

Last week, a committee that has reviewed the codes brought a list of suggested changes to the City Council. Although the recommendations curiously left out such useful ideas as installing pillories at City Hall for council members, they should help the city run more smoothly.

Far from being boring, thumbing through the Code Book is a wonderful way to capture the feeling of small-town government.

It's also a trip through history, as many of the codes harken back to a time when farm animals and trains jockeyed with people for space on Crystal River's streets.

Trains, for example, earned quite a bit of attention. Codes spelled out how fast they could go through town (10 mph top speed), and how long they could block a street (five minutes) before the conductor had to uncouple cars to let traffic pass.

People who didn't work for the railroad were prohibited from jumping on or off a train while it was in motion. Solicitors for hotels and boarding houses were ordered not to obstruct passengers at depots or grab their baggage and lure them to their hotel.

This whole section of colorful codes was gutted for one simple reason: The trains don't run through town anymore.

Along those lines, the fire chief no longer has to inspect "doubtful" chimney flues and stove pipes. Heat pumps have pushed wood and coal stoves onto history's dust heap.

No city code speaks to how much society has changed better than Section 3.5, which reads: "No female person shall frequent or loiter in any establishment where alcoholic beverages are sold with the purpose of soliciting men to purchase drinks."

The code committee dropped that section after city staff pointed out that not only is it sexist, it's illegal. Politically incorrect, too, I might add.

The codes deal with serious issues such as licenses for contractors and ways to ensure that commercial buildings meet state statutes. There's also an extended part on signs and billboards that goes into excruciating detail.

But the best parts are those that spell out the rules for being a responsible citizen.

The codes tell you how clean to keep the sidewalks. They set a limit (24 inches) for how high your weeds can grow before you must mow. There's a rule saying you can't put your garbage in someone else's can if that person has paid for garbage collection.

If you're thinking of throwing decaying flesh, foul water or anything else that may annoy your fellow residents onto your own property, their property or any street or alley, the code says: Don't do it.

Likewise, forget about keeping chickens or other fowl within the city limits, especially if you intend to let them run loose.

But my favorite is a time-worn prohibition that still has present-day application. I direct you to Section 4-1.

It reads, in part, that no asses shall run at large within the city.

Like everyone else, I suppose, they must run from council districts.

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