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Wednesday, 18 March 2009 20:26

Landslide highlights, once again, need for new laws

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Another landslide occurred a little over a week ago, this one leaving a home teetering on the edge of a precipice and in a position to potentially slide down the mountain when more rains come. And once again homeowners and regulators in the mountain region have few laws or protection to guide them in avoiding these natural disasters. We believe it is time for the state to enact a steep slope law barring construction in some dangerous sites and for the General Assembly to make landslide insurance available to homeowners in Western North Carolina.

As for the steep slope regulations, few counties have taken the initiative to enact strong ordinances. Opposition groups mount strong campaigns, and many county commissioners themselves think fewer regulations are best.

What lawmakers need to remember, however, is that is a public safety issue. Building on certain slopes is inherently dangerous. And while each homeowner or property buyer could choose to have an engineering study performed, it simply isn’t going to happen. A state law could mandate engineering reviews on certain grades and simply ban construction in some spots deemed too unstable. It really wouldn’t be that different from mandated beachfront setback requirements at the coast or laws barring construction in estuaries deemed environmentally sensitive. In some places it is just not a good idea to build anything.

The public safety argument needs to remain at the forefront of this issue as private property rights advocates jump into the fray. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, introduced a steep slope proposal in 2007 that was not passed. It would limit building on slopes of 40 percent (a 22 percent grade) and rely on counties to do the inspections. This is a good start and hopefully will be reconsidered this year.

The insurance issue is more complicated but not impossible. Landslide maps for the entire state are supposed to be finished by 2014. These could be used to establish a safety rating system (kind of like the insurance industry uses to rate different kinds of cars) that would then let insurance companies use a sliding scale for setting rates.

As for homes already built, the mapping project and an engineering report could be used together to establish a safety rating, and there again this could be used to establish a rate.

A series of stories on landslides that was published recently by the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that only 40 buildings in the state have been destroyed by landslides in WNC since 1990. Compared to the beach homes ravaged by hurricanes or homes destroyed by fire, this is a relatively low number. The state developed an insurance pool for the coast to help insurance companies, and it seems only fair to demand that those companies doing business here insure mountain homes against landslide damage. Someone is just going to have to do some art twisting.

All that’s needed to get beyond the roadblocks on these issues is a stiff backbone by lawmakers who won’t buckle to the organized groups opposed to these measures. These kinds of laws would help manage growth, not stop it. And we all support reasonable measures that lead to responsible growth and promote public safety, right?

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