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Wednesday, 24 March 2010 19:03

Slide sends powerful message to Macon planners

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Over the past month a slow-moving landslide behind the Craftsmen Village development in Macon County has worsened, leaving one property owner facing life without a home.

Michael Boggan’s house was condemned by the county last week, a decision arrived at jointly by the planning, soil and erosion, and building inspection departments. County staff deemed the house unsafe after determining the foundation was compromised. The earth around the home site has shifted, twisting the footings and cracking the foundation.

It’s the first time since the devastating Peeks Creek slide that destroyed 15 homes and killed five people in 2004 that the county has used GS 153.366 to condemn a property that wasn’t damaged by fire.

The county’s soil and erosion control director, Matt Mason, explained Boggan’s predicament to the planning board at its meeting last week.

“I think he honestly was afraid for his safety. He knows now he has to pay a mortgage on a parcel that’s essentially useless,” said Mason.

The implications of condemning the property are far-reaching, but the decision wasn’t taken without careful examination.

The story began in early February when Boggan noticed a crack in his driveway that appeared following a nearby landslide. The landslide originated from the back of a large, terraced retail development called Craftsmen Village that lies adjacent to Ruby Cinemas on U.S. 441.

In the wake of that slide, a noticeable scarp had emerged on the face of the hillside above Boggan’s house.

Boggan called the county on Feb. 11 and asked them to come look at it. Mason went out to examine the trouble. While the landslide had indeed opened up part of the hillside, Mason found that a scarp in some form or fashion already existed on Boggan’s property, but it was unclear whether the slide had exacerbated its movement.

So Mason asked State Geologist Rick Wooten to come take a look the next day along with other staff from the N.C. Geological Survey’s Asheville office.

After examining the hillside, Wooten determined the scarp on Boggan’s property had been growing for several years and said it should be monitored closely.

Fast forward a month to March 11. Boggan called Mason back, because the crack had grown into a 10-inch shelf that made his driveway impassable. Mason and Wooten returned to the site to find out how things could have worsened that quickly.

“Over the course of the month, the scarp had gotten bigger and extended, connecting to the other slide area,” Wooten said. “They’re becoming part of the same slide.”

Wooten estimated that a 13-acre tract of land, 30 to 40 feet in depth, had shifted.

When the county’s inspectors came to the Boggan property March 15, they found a house with a cracked foundation sitting on footings that were twisted and out of true. Meanwhile the hillside was still moving, providing the real threat of an even worse secondary slide.

Those factors left the county’s chief building inspector, Bobby Bishop, with a serious decision. He posted a notice of condemnation, leaving Boggan and his wife homeless.

Wooten hasn’t finished his site assessment on the February landslide yet, but certain details are clear.

It occurred on top of an older slide, and the scarp on the Boggan property had likely been widening since 2006. Meanwhile, the bedrock being excavated at the foot of the hill to make way for the Craftsmen Village development was badly weathered, creating ideal conditions for a slow-moving slide. Add to that the large-scale excavation undermining the base of the slope, and it was almost a perfect storm.

“One thing that can de-stabilize a slope is when you excavate into a hillside and over-steepen the toe of the slope,” Wooten said.

Barbara Kiers, a spokesperson for Joseph G. Moretti Inc., said Mr. Moretti was aware of the damage on Boggan’s land but has not seen any information that links the damage to the slide at Craftsmen Village.

Wooten is a geologist, and it’s not his job to determine if anyone is to blame for Boggan’s loss, but in the wake of the Maggie Valley slide, it’s becoming more and more clear that civil suits are poised to be a new part of the landscape where landslides are involved.

“These are local jurisdiction issues. We try to provide the factual information and our best understanding of the causes of events to any interested parties,” Wooten said.

Mason took the case to the Macon County Planning Board as an example of the need for a steep slope ordinance.

“The question is would the new ordinance have helped him?” Mason said.

The answer isn’t entirely clear, but the slope standards proposed by the Steep Slope Committee last month would have put three measures in place that may have helped Boggan’s cause.

The condemned house lies on property that has 30 to 35 percent slope in some places, which would fall within the threshold for county oversight. Under the proposed ordinance, county planners would have had discretion to require engineering.

In addition, another proposed standard could require geotechnical engineering for properties that lie in the certain landslide hazard areas.

Also the cut-and-fill guidelines proposed in the ordinance would likely have forced Craftsmen Village developer Joseph Moretti to seek geotechnical engineering expertise when excavating the property at the foot of the hill.

Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland thanked his colleagues for their foresight and greeted the event as a sign the county needs the steep slope ordinance in place as soon as possible.

“When we started this whole process, it wasn’t near the issue it’s become,” Penland said.

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