Missing maps provoke discussion at Macon steep-slope meeting

No one could specify exactly who made the decision to remove the maps or when precisely that occurred, but some members of a Macon group studying steep-slope safety want them returned to the county’s website.

The taxpayer-funded Slope Movement Hazard maps were prepared by the N.C. Geological Survey to highlight potential landslide-danger spots. They were taken down without warning from the county’s website “a few months ago,” according to members of the county’s steep-slope subcommittee. The maps remain available through the state’s website for those willing to go in search of them.

View the maps online

This, however, is not particularly helpful to a majority of Macon County residents, area real-estate agents and people considering buying property in the county, said Stacy Guffey, a member of the steep-slope subcommittee and former Macon County planner.

Guffey said he believes people should be able to tap into county-related information (landslide potential, flood dangers and so on) in one easy-to-find location. Subcommittee Chairman Al Slagle agreed, but backed off forwarding the suggestion to the planning board after two subcommittee members — who sell real estate professionally — opposed the idea. Reggie Holland and John Becker explained they believe the maps cause more harm than good. This, they said, because the maps lack meaningful context for laypersons trying to interpret trained scientists’ work.

Additionally, the men raised questions about liability. Lewis Penland, chairman of the planning board and a professional golf-course designer, tried to assuage their fears. He said his understanding is that a real-estate agent’s responsibility ends with directing prospective buyers toward qualified experts. Penland added, however, that attempts to have this interpretation rendered in the form of an actual stand-up-in-court legal opinion hasn’t proven successful.

Slagle, saying he wanted consensus, promised the matter would be discussed again later. Guffey endorsed Slagle’s call for a harmonious resolution and postponement of the discussion, perhaps because there hasn’t been too much getting-along-together-even-when-we-disagree happening these days in Macon County.


Don’t live in Macon, so why should you care?

Good question, but there’s an equally good answer: because the ramifications of what’s taking place in Macon resonates in other Western North Carolina counties. Voters’ decision during the mid-term elections to hand control of state and county governments to Republicans and GOP-backed Independent candidates means land planning, if it occurs at all, is likely to look very different.

The fight for now is taking place in Macon County. Tomorrow, it might well erupt in Jackson, or some other WNC county.

Here’s what happened in Macon County: the county planning board appoints the steep-slope subcommittee. The planning board, in turn, is appointed by Macon County’s Board of Commissioners. The board of commissions fractured internally and came under intense fire recently for placing, in a 3-2 vote, an anti-planning advocate  — Jimmy Goodman — on the planning board in place of Subcommittee Chairman Slagle.

Goodman helped found the Tea Party chapter Freedom Works, and won no small favor among some in Macon County with his arguments that the planning board he now serves on should take a hiatus. Goodman was previously a member of the planning board. He was not reappointed because other members wanted Goodman removed from the board for what they deemed obstructive behavior. At least that’s how Democrat Commissioner Ronnie Beale described the problem. And it was Beale who found himself unexpectedly on the losing side when the aforementioned 3-2 decision came about.

Goodman, for his part, told The Smoky Mountain News he has every intention of working hard on the planning board. And that he doesn’t want to get involved in politics. Though, as a point of fact, Goodman of his own accord recently became deeply enmeshed in politics — the professional cabinetmaker ran an unsuccessful campaign against Republican Jim Davis, a Franklin resident, in the May primaries. The two men were vying for a state Senate seat.

Not confused enough yet by these internecine political plays? Here’s one more important point: Davis, a Macon County commissioner, ultimately ousted John Snow, D-Murphy, for the 50th Senate District seat. Perhaps as a consolation prize for Goodman and in a gesture toward Macon County Republican Party unity, Davis, in nearly his last act as a commissioner, seconded the nomination for Goodman to be placed on the county planning board.


What purposes the maps might serve

The steep-slope committee headed by Slagle has been working on a set of proposed regulations since June 2009.

Macon County in 1994 experienced a massive debris flow in the Peeks Creek community. Five people died. This was a natural, not man-created event — though in saying that, one must overlook the truth that this obliterated portion of the community was built where the more than two-mile long debris flow did actually occur.

Additionally, Macon County has been the site of several landslides that have been blamed on improper road construction and inappropriate building sites or techniques.

Would the currently available geological maps have helped? That’s probably an unanswerable question. But these are precisely the type situations the maps might help prevent in the future — plus, they could serve to warn where it might be best to avoid land disturbance through building and construction. Or, at the very least, signal whether an expert should render an opinion on how best to minimize or avoid any dangers if building and construction does move forward.

“It just points out areas from a slope stability, public safety standpoint (where) it makes sense to have a closer look,” said Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C Geological Survey.

The General Assembly ordered the geological survey to put together maps for the state’s 19 westernmost counties. In Macon County, Wooten said 600 to 900 locations were studied, and the following maps were the result:

• Slope Movements Deposit Map: Where the ground has moved or is still moving.

• Stability Index Map: Where a landslide seems more likely given the right set of weather conditions.

• Debris Flow Pathways Map: The likely path of a landslide.

Wooten said draft maps have been finished for Henderson County. Work is under way in Jackson County.


Want to get involved?

The Macon County steep-slope committee is set to meet next at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5, in the agricultural building, formerly the health department in Franklin. The committee wants to finalize its recommendations by February for the county planning board to consider. To that end, the committee plans to meet “as often as possible” over the next few months, Al Slagle, the subcommittee’s chairman, said.

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