Saturday, October 27, 2007

Inverting the Inverted Pyramid

Every reporter in the state who covers local government should be acquainted with the basics of comprehensive planning.

It’s part of the job description, on a par with understanding the electoral process, knowing the fundamentals of law making, learning the ins and outs of property assessment, taxation, school funding and “Sunshine State Standards” (Florida school curricula and our annual winter FCAT debates), and a host of other core topics huddled under the umbrella of civics and political science.

Comprehensive planning is a subject a journalist can’t write intelligently about without at least a little background knowledge, which is what a DeSoto Sun reporter tried to do this week. That the reporter had to cover a meeting he knew nothing about is painfully clear on this morning’s front page. This particular young man has been in town a couple of years now, and the comp plan has been in development for all of that time. He should be able to describe it in terms my mother would understand.

Back in August, local commissioners sent the local comp plan to the state, knowing it had shortcomings. Basically, they said, “Let’s throw it on the wall and see what sticks.” The modus operandi was let the state tell them what's wrong and revise accordingly. Which is exactly what happened. An alert citizenry might question if this is the best way to create policies and draw maps that will affect local homesteads and businesses and ranches for decades to come.

But let's overlook the reporter’s sorry grasp of the subject. There’s no excuse for a badly constructed story that leads with obscure administrative processes, buries the news somewhere down in the 15th graf, and is anchored with self-serving quotes from friends in local government. If the document on which his story is based was released Wednesday, this reporter had two days, at least, to make calls, get an education and sort things out. He didn't use his time wisely.

That’s the editorial. Here are the facts:

Headline: A comprehensive setback

Comp plan scrutinized by state expert; found not "in compliance" with Florida law.

By Jon Sica, DeSoto News Editor

ARCADIA -- The Florida Department of Community Affairs has reviewed DeSoto County's Comprehensive plan and found it wanting.

Department leaders issued a statement of intent to find the comp plan "not in compliance" Wednesday because it is inconsistent with state law, the state's comp plan, and Florida's administrative code. The department's rejection letter outlines 10 reasons why the comp plan failed to comply. Now, county leaders are hoping to fix the comp plan for the state's satisfaction and garner its approval as soon as possible -- preferably before county leaders would have to meet department experts during a judicial hearing to decide its fate
Readers are two paragraphs and four and a half sentences into the story with no clue about why the state rejected the local comprehensive plan. Readers learn the rejection letter includes 10 reasons, but the reporter gives no hint about what even one of them might be.

A reporter who has followed local comprehensive planning would be able to sort through the points and pick one or two of the most significant, giving readers a reason to read the story.

Based on what I’ve read in the papers (ahem), bouncing a plan for this largely agricultural, sparsely populated based on "urban sprawl" seems an eminently newsworthy place to begin. Another the bullet point mentions central water and sewage -- subjects that are always red flags waving a dollar sign. Either of these important issues might have given readers an entrance into the story and the reporter a basis for organizing the rest of the information.

The reporter’s time reference in the second graf to Wednesday is confusing. Was there an unscheduled commission meeting that day? If this is the date the state sent the letter, let's be clear that the commission hasn't held a meeting and the news story is based on a letter that's a courtesy, a heads-up, from the state to the locality.

The language of the bureaucracy needs to be translated. A well-informed and well-read reporter knows a letter about “inconsistencies with state law, the state’s comprehensive plan and Florida’s administrative code” is largely legalese. What, pray tell, readers want to know, does the mumbo-jumbo mean?

Instead of answering any of the “inverted pyramid” items such as who, what, when, where or why, the reporter abandons today’s news and uses the third graf to retreat to the safety of history:

The comp plan was approved by the DeSoto County Commission Aug. 28 after a two-hour long public hearing on the subject. The goal of the plan is to keep local growth and development on the county's terms; balancing the demands of population growth, development, local ecosystems and economic expansion -- all within the boundaries of myriad state laws and regulations.
Let's ignore the passive voice, punctuation problems, abstractions, and the writer’s final cop out phrase, “myriad state laws and regulations.” All in all, this paragraph tells readers the reporter is in over his head. For one thing, the goal of the state-mandated comprehensive plan is not "to keep local growth and development on the county's terms." If anything, it's quite the opposite -- it keeps localities from going whichever way they choose at the expense of the region and resources. So perhaps, we hope, he’ll go to an expert, the county’s own land planner, for an explanation. Instead, readers get this:

"(Department of Community Affairs) staff has complimented this plan, which is kind of strange to hear," said Jason Green, planning manager. "But there are portions of it they are very happy with and, overall, they think it's a good plan."

Green said the department's staff even went so far as to
tell him they may use DeSoto's environmental polices as an example for other counties.
Okay, we live in a small town, and Reporter Jon may well belong to the same gym as Land Planner Jason. I’ll let him have his softball quote, but I do expect some substance soon.

Most of the department's objections in the letter of intent -- which was authored by Mike McDaniel, chief of the department's office of comprehensive planning -- centered around the comp plan’s density and zoning clauses
Now readers learn who “authored” the letter of intent, as if that's truly important at this particular point. Unfortunately for this reporter, the letter likely "authored" by an urban planner or two within the DCS and drafted for the chief's signature.

Other readers might wonder what’s the intent of a “letter of intent,” and if that's something different than the letter of rejection. But, they are not going to be informed.

Readers learn something’s wrong with “density and zoning clauses.” Do the clauses have poor punctuation and spelling? I doubt it. I suspect that there's something wrong with the county's policies about density and zoning. Maybe the local land planner can explain:

"There are two issues: too low of density and too many units," Green said." (The department) is worried about form of development and how it's going to occur -- to make sure you have enough open space and preservation of valuable resources, and stuff -- that's what we have to address."
Form of development – what exactly is that? Open space – is that pastures or parks? “Preservation of valuable resources” is good in a circular-reasoning universe, but is there gold in them thar hills or does this mean the Peace River, Horse Creek and Joshua Creek? Is the reporter trying to tell us the comp plan was thrown out because it fails to protect the watershed?Readers deserve to to know that. About “...and stuff,” I have no comment.

Our reporter has already reported there are 10 points of failure, but now the land planner says there are just two issues. If I think I get what’s going on, it's not because the reporter has made anything clear.

Urban sprawl, need, concurrency and Development of Regional Impact standards, commonly called DRIs -- the state picked apart the comp plan's policies about these issues.
Is this sentence part of the local land planner’s statement? It sounds as if it’s a paraphrase, and if so, it needs to be attributed to him.

More importantly, an alert reporter would know to ask the planner to explain to readers how a sparsely populated region suffers from "urban sprawl." A reporter who understands the subject would locate and share the technical meaning of “need.” I happen to know what the next item, “concurrency,” is. But it’s also a technical term most readers would appreciate a snappy definition of from a knowledgeable reporter or the land planner. Just saying that “Development of Regional Impact” is phrase commonly known by its initials does not explain it.

And, what exactly are the local policies the reporter -- or land planner (at this point, readers don’t know exactly who) -- mentions that got picked apart?

"It comes down to an interpretation of what you're trying to accomplish,"Green said."Everybody has their own opinion. I think overall it's a good plan -- we're proud of it -- we have to figure out exactly what the department wants. That's the million-dollar question."
Another defensive, self-serving quote from the (I think) gym buddy, a quote that no self-respecting reporter would included in a first-day news story.

To bring the comp plan into compliance, the department said county leaders must do the following:
Finally, readers get to see the points the DCA says are problems. Unfortunately, not one item defined, explained, ranked in terms of cost, importance, substance, or any other factor that might help readers understand what the state is asking local government to do.

* Revise the five-year schedule of capital improvement to include road deficiencies on U.S. 17 and State Road 70, noting the funding sources for each. If this cannot happen, the department said the county must lower land-use assignments to reduce the impact on those highways.
* Revise the capital improvement and future land-use policies to require the roads and parks serving permitted developments be completed or under construction within three years of board approval.
* Revise future land-use policies, which allocate land to residential and nonresidential land uses, to accommodate the projected population of DeSoto in the year 2030, by reducing the amount of residential and nonresidential land shown on the future land-use map to reflect the needs of projected population.
* Adopt "innovative and flexible techniques and strategies" that will reduce urban sprawl by centralizing developments in hamlets, villages and towns.
* Clarify public land and institution polices that define the types and uses allowed in this category.
* Revise mixed-use community policies to make the number of nonresidential uses allowed proportional to the size of the residential community.
* Revise mixed-use standards to make it less difficult to interpret and implement the comp plan's standards.
* Revise policies 1.6.10 and 1.6.15 to require the same
conditions for connection to central water and sewer.
* Revise DRI standards to "not only define the density and intensity of uses, but the proportion of the mix of uses allowed." Ideally, it should ensure "an appropriate and proportional balance between the residential and non-residential use."
* Create an industrial land-use category in the comp plan and "assign that category to lands in the urban area that are determined to be suitable for industrial development, or restrict industrial uses to suitable urban land-use categories."
Interim County Administrator Bart Arrington said most of these changes can be easily made on paper, but the rest may take some time.

Uhm, okay, which ones will “take some time?” Maybe those are newsworthy, lead-graf items to bring to the top. Did the reporter ask the administrator which ones might “take some time” and what that time might be, or what made some things more difficult than others? If he did, he doesn't report it.

"I believe these things are fixable," Arrington said. "I don't think it's an impossible task; we can get these things settled in the time we need so we don't have to go to the hearing."
The hearing was mentioned the very beginning and now it's time to explain it a bit more. (I’m skipping the self-serving, save-my-job quote.) A few readers may know that if a deficient plan isn’t remedied, the state can impose fines, withhold funding, and order other community sanctions. But this isn’t reported, because, as readers probably know by now, if the reporter knows, he not sharing.

Arrington has not talked to the department leaders yet, but said county staff will be working closely with them in the coming weeks to revise the comp plan exactly how the department wants it. And he hopes to do it in about 30 days.
Mike McDaniel, chief of comprehensive planning in the Department of Community Affairs up in Tallahassee is the last-named “department leader.” Is he the person the reporter is referring to? The tired phrase, "county staff will be working closely" with these folks is another self-serving platitude.

Is the county administrator’s “about 30 days” estimate for those things that he said earlier will “take some time”? The reporter may have asked about this, but he didn’t report it. Instead, like a good novel writer, he treats readers to a cutesy but meaningless “summary quote” from his good buddy.

"It's better to shoot for the sky and miss, than aim for the ground and hit it," Arrington said.
The only reason to include a quote like this is to make the source feel good about having said something that seems profound. It’s self serving and meaningless. No professional journalist would have thought for one second about including it in a first day story.

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