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Developer Phobia

The Star asks who's responsible for wood rot but suspiciously never offers an answer.

Something went missing in a recent Kansas City Star "watchdog report" about wood rot in modern homes.

A villain.

The December 13 story, headlined "Water Damage Repairs Drain Homeowners," described how buyers of relatively new and expensive homes were surprised to find rotten timber and mold in their wall cavities.

The first homeowner quoted in Paul Wenske's story was a woman named Barbara Choplin. Wenske wrote that repairmen found "a crumbling mess" when they peeled back the siding on her 11-year-old house.

Details about Choplin's home ended there. The story, in fact, seemed to want to say as little as possible about the place.

The story said the residence was located in a "south Johnson County development," a vague description befitting a protected witness. The name of the builder was also omitted, even though Wenske reported that at least 58 of the 111 homes in the unnamed subdivision had similar problems.

The lack of information was disorienting. In a front-page story describing what sounded like shoddy work, the workman himself was unidentified. It was as if a new journalistic practice had been invented: Expose a problem but conceal the culprit.

The details, it turns out, were cut in the editing stage. Wenske tells the Pitch that the original draft named the builder, whom Wenske communicated with by e-mail.

Why did his editors remove his name and what he had to say for himself?

"I think they said length or something like that," Wenske says. He adds: "The story was held for a while. You have to ask the editors why they deleted that information."

A portion of the story was removed, according to Star editor Bob Lynn. The passage consisted of the builder and the residents in Choplin's subdivision trading blame. Lynn says the information was not "germane" to the central point.

"You get into 15 inches of back and forth that didn't need to be in there," Lynn says, referring to a newspaper measurement that equals about 450 words.

Maybe Lynn's right, and the arguments and counterarguments were deathly boring. Or maybe the Star feared a lawsuit. Or maybe the Star didn't want to piss off developers, who make up a prominent component of its advertising base. In the 2,190-word story, only one homebuilder was mentioned by name.

As for Choplin's house, the mysteries end here.

The subdivision is named Willowbrook. It's in Overland Park. The builder is Thomas French.

Reached for comment, French, a past president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City, said, "I don't have any comment, except that these homes are over 10 years old. I don't know how I could have much to say about them. I don't think it would be right to tie a problem to a house back to a builder of houses that are over 10 years old, when maintenance is a key issue of them and I have no control over that."

See? That didn't take 15 inches.

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