Ghost Town is far from off the hook for repairing the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.
The Rich Cove slide originated from Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park more than a month ago. About 16,000 tons of material remain unstable at the site, threatening an even worse slide.
No one has said yet whether natural causes or the failure of retaining walls led to the mudslide. But that might not matter. Town officials have discovered several lines of attack for forcing the amusement park company to foot the cleanup bill.
Town Manager Tim Barth has unearthed a state law that would allow the town to step in and stabilize the site then force Ghost Town to cover all the expenses.
Another more long-term option is to pass an ordinance regulating development on steep slopes — to prevent future landslides and force property owners to clean up slides that occur. The county already has such an ordinance, but the town chose not to adopt it, so it doesn’t apply to Ghost Town, which is within town limits.
The state law that Barth cited says a town can summarily remove anything that is dangerous to public safety within one mile of time limits. Expenses would be covered by the property owner. If they aren’t paid, the town could place a lien on the property and on any other property owned by the same entity in town, except for primary residences.
Barth acknowledges that it would be difficult to get Ghost Town to pay up since it’s already mired by bankruptcy. But the town may proceed anyway.
“It may be a situation where certain actions have to be taken to stabilize that area, and maybe the town gets paid back at a later time after the property is sold,” said Barth.
It would be beneficial for anybody who owns the land to repair the slide, Barth added.
Town officials are still waiting to hear on the prospect of federal assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The USDA may be able to provide 75 percent of funding for the Rich Cove slide repair, though local sources will still need to scrape up the remaining 25 percent.
The town and county plan to meet jointly after the estimate for the cleanup and stabilization work is finalized some time this week. Both governments hope Ghost Town will cough up money for the cleanup regardless of its bankrupt status.
However, Ghost Town’s bankruptcy attorney has said the park does not have the $250,000 it needs to open for the season unless an investor is found.
Steep slope ordinance in sight?
Barth recently consulted with Haywood County on the possibility of adopting a steep slope ordinance within town limits.
Because of the potential for another slide at Rich Cove, the town would have to move fairly quickly. It could adopt the county’s slope ordinance wholesale, rather than take the time to write one of its own.
“We recognize that there’s a time factor, that we need to probably get something in place fairly soon,” said Barth. “But we want to make sure we do things the right way, and in a way that makes sense for Maggie Valley as well as the county.”
Barth said the town had not pursued an ordinance in the past because little development occurred on steep slopes within town limits.
Another limiting factor was not having enough resources to hire a full-time engineer to enforce a steep slope ordinance. If the county agrees to handle enforcement, Maggie might sign on to Haywood’s ordinance.
“That would be the easiest, quickest way to have legislation enacted,” said town planner Nathan Clark, who hopes that the slide will renew serious discussions about a steep slope ordinance in Maggie.
Such an ordinance provides several ways to force a landslide cleanup.
For example, Haywood can delay necessary permits to hold up development until the slide is stabilized. It can also fine property owners until they cooperate.
“It might start out at $5,000 or it might start out at $50, depending on the severity of the slope failure and how much noncooperation there is,” said Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.
Under the county ordinance, Shumpert has the authority to deem a slope in danger of sliding a “critical slope” and compel the property owner to stabilize it.
For now, the county has little influence over the Rich Cove cleanup. That would change, however, if Maggie passes a steep slope ordinance and the county takes over.
“It all boils down to jurisdiction,” said Shumpert.
Two landslides hit in the Maggie area in January 2009, but they were outside the town limits so the county’s slope ordinance kicked into effect.
For the first time, Haywood County was able to force a property owner to clean up a slide.
One property owner recently submitted design plans for the slide stabilization.
The other owner filed for bankruptcy, and the county is now negotiating with the bank that’s taken over the property. Haywood has not filed a lien on the property.
Shumpert said the bank has two options: it can either repair the site and sell the house on it, or it can bulldoze the home and return the area to its natural state.
Haywood County commissioners are reluctant to hand over taxpayer money to stabilize the latest landslide in Maggie Valley — even if the federal government chips in for much of the cost.
At a commissioners meeting on Monday, the Town of Maggie Valley asked the county to partner in a grant application from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program. If approved, the grant would pay to remove debris, reroute the natural stream channel, and most importantly, shore up the still unstable portion of the mountainside. About 12,000 to 16,000 tons of material is looming over the Rich Cove community, posing the potential for more slides.
The federal grant would cover 75 percent of the cost, while the remaining 25 percent would have to be found locally.
But lingering questions over whether the slide at Rich Cove was a natural disaster or caused by a failed retaining wall at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park has caused county commissioners to hesitate about participating in the program.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the issue at hand is whether Ghost Town is at fault. If so, the company, not county taxpayers, should pay for the slide’s impact. Ghost Town has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year, however.
Steve Steve Shiver, CEO of Ghost Town, said he just didn’t have enough data — namely the cost of cleanup and stabilization — to make any decisions.
“At this point, we’ll just wait and see what the estimates are,” said Shiver, adding that Ghost Town has been able to repair a road that was washed out by the slide over the weekend. Road access to the top of the mountain is now restored, Shiver said.
At one point on Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis asked Maggie Valley’s town manager point blank if the town would pursue litigation against Ghost Town in the future to recoup its costs.
“Is the Town of Maggie Valley willing to enter litigation to get their 25 percent back?” asked Curtis.
Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth replied the town would talk to Ghost Town about whether its owners would chip in to cover the 25 percent local match.
“It won’t get any cheaper for them, I’ll just say that,” said Barth. “If they have to fix that on their own, it’ll be 100 percent cost, and not 25 percent.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Mark Swanger worried about setting a precedent for providing county money to clean up slides, even when they occur on private property or are caused by private companies.
“How is this one different from the ones we had in the past?” asked Swanger.
Swanger said if Maggie is going to ask for county assistance, it should also follow the county’s lead in implementing regulations for development on steep slopes.
Curtis added that local governments should begin pushing to bring landslide insurance coverage to the state, even if it is expensive.
The commissioners ultimately decided not to commit to the program before receiving a concrete dollar figure on the 25 percent match.
“Really, the bottom line is going to be the cost,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
Town and county leaders will hold a joint meeting once the federal agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, comes up with a proper estimate for the stabilization and clean up.
A project manager and engineer surveyed the slide this week and hope to provide a damage survey report by early next week.
Carol Litchfield, a local representative from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said while legal complexities may arise with this particular landslide, it meets the objectives of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which only responds to natural disasters.
Litchfield said the main issue now is not the 25 percent, but whether the grant will be awarded given competition for the funds. Litchfield said it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up a site, though she does not have a ballpark figure for what it would cost to stabilize the Rich Cove slide.
The agency will not cover the costs for repairing structures or homes damaged by the mudslide, she added.
The last time the Emergency Watershed Protection Program was utilized in this area was to mitigate the impact of the 2004 floods in 17 western counties, including in Haywood and Macon counties. At that time, a federal state of emergency was declared, and the state covered the 25 percent match.
With this slide, there hasn’t been enough damage to call for a state of emergency at the state or federal level, though both the county and the Town of Maggie Valley signed a disaster declaration.
For now, the threat of another slide still looms over Rich Cove with a precautionary zone that covers more than double the size of the area currently damaged by the slide.
“We got to do something,” said Greg Shuping, emergency services director for the county. “The fact remains that we have a threat.”
Rather than continuing a reactive approach to rockslides on Interstate 40, the DOT is making a widespread effort to prevent disasters like the Oct. 25 slide from occurring again.
The DOT says it will invest $4 million to stabilize five other sites that have either experienced slides in the past or are likely sources of future slides. The money will hopefully come from federal highway emergency funds.
“If there’s a silver lining in all of this,” said Jon Nance, DOT’s chief engineer of operations, “it’s that we’ve located other areas that need to be repaired to prevent another occurrence like this one.”
All of the sites are in the final five miles of the Pigeon River Gorge before reaching the Tennessee line. The area is known for instability and has been prone to slides since its construction. When a second rock slide struck six weeks ago — in the same vicinity as the major slide — it triggered an assessment of the corridor to identify particularly unstable spots.
This additional work will not affect the reopening of I-40, though one mile of the westbound lane will be closed until this summer to finish it.
The DOT estimates the new project will employ between 50 to 100 more people. The first step is removing unstable rock in a process called scaling, which involves men with crowbars dislodging loose rock. Large bolts will then be set deeply into the mountain to snug down the rock face.
A landslide at the Waterdance development in the Tuckasegee area of Jackson County washed out a road and dumped a significant amount of mud and concrete into the Tuckasegee River in early February.
Robbie Shelton, erosion control officer for Jackson County, estimated the slide laid bare a 75-foot-wide swath about 100 yards long. A retaining wall holding back a cut-and-fill slope above a road broke, and the resulting slide covered an entire lot at the development.
“It was just retaining too much water and the hydrostatic pressure caused it to fail,” Shelton said.
Shelton said the cause of the slide had not yet been determined.
Shelton said cold weather froze the slide and limited the effects of runoff. He also said the near flood levels of the Tuck’s West Fork may have minimized the impact by diluting the sediment. Shelton said there were no visible soil deposits downstream of the slide when he examined the river days after the event.
Water Dance is located between Tuckasegee and Glenville and is owned by Legasus, a mega developer that once held more than 4,000 acres in Jackson County. The developer fell victim to the recession and has faced numerous foreclosures over the past year.
The slide damaged a lot owned by Patrick Kennedy, who bought large acreage from Legasus during the company’s financial problems. Shelton said Legasus is currently working on a mitigation plan for the soil and concrete that entered the river, and the company’s engineers are studying the roadway. Water Dance was started before Jackson County passed a new, more restrictive subdivision ordinance, but its roads met county standards, Shelton said.
Shelton has received numerous calls about slides around the county as heavy rains and snow hit the mountains hard in February.
“These slides are occurring countywide,” said Shelton. “None as visible as this one, but I’m vetting calls every time it rains.”
Another slide closed a lane of N.C. 281 near Little Canada, and Shelton received reports of a third heavy slide near Whittier.
Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park was behind on its general liability insurance payments in the months leading up to a massive landslide that originated from its property.
Ghost Town has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year. It was three months behind on payments for its general liability insurance coverage when the slide occurred on Feb. 5, according to paperwork filed as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
Ghost Town had an arrangement with a finance company to make insurance payments on its behalf. In return, Ghost Town was supposed to make regular payments to the finance company, First Financial.
But Ghost Town got so late on payments that the finance company sent a “notice of cancelation” of coverage effective Jan. 28.
“Your insurance coverage referenced above is hereby cancelled as of the cancellation date indicated,” the notice states. The notice states that Ghost Town had “already received the statutory written notice of our intent to cancel and any cure period has expired.”
Another two weeks passed before Ghost Town sent a payment. On Feb. 10 — a few days following the landslide — Ghost Town wired $27,400 to the finance company to cover the past due bill from the last quarter of 2009 and the current quarter of 2010.
The status of Ghost Town’s account with First Funding for the liability insurance was found online. A payment of $13,000 was due in November of 2009. Three statements were sent out demanding payment over a three-month period.
The words “cancel status” then appear beside the account on Jan. 28. Account records show payments totaling $27,400 were wired on Feb. 10.
Lynn Sylvester, a Ghost Town partner and CPA, said the late payments to the finance company did not result in a lapse of insurance.
“Fact is, our insurance coverage did not lapse, and in fact, was always paid in full by the finance company, First Funding,” Sylvester said. However, First Funding filed paperwork with the bankruptcy court on Jan. 29 stating it had canceled the policy.
Representatives with the insurance company, First Mercury Insurance, would not say whether Ghost Town had general liability coverage at the time of the slide — which falls in the two-week window between the cancellation notice issued by First Funding on Jan. 28 and when the payments were wired on Feb. 10.
“That is between us and the insured,” said Bill Costello, a claims adjuster for First Mercury Insurance Company. Costello is handling a few other liability claims against Ghost Town, but said the company has not received any claims relating to the landslide that he is aware of.
Marcia Paulson, the vice president of administration with First Mercury Insurance in Southfield, Mich., also would not say whether Ghost Town’s insurance had lapsed during the window.
“I don’t know that I could address that. You are not the insured or the insured’s counsel,” Paulson said.
Ghost Town took out the general liability policy with First Mercury Insurance Company in May 2009 with an annual premium of $61,000, according to bankruptcy filings.
A company in bankruptcy reorganization is required to stay current on its insurance. The physical property of a bankrupt company is the only collateral for its debts. The property must be properly insured to protect the interests of those owed money.
BB&T, which is owed $9.5 million by Ghost Town for loans taken out to buy the property and fund upgrades, has the most at stake in bankruptcy proceedings. BB&T filed court papers on Feb. 3 objecting to Ghost Town falling behind in payments for its general liability policy. BB&T attached the notice of cancellation for the policy as an exhibit in the court filing.
Ghost Town had also received cancellation notices for its auto, property and fire insurance, which BB&T entered into the record as well.
BB&T is pushing for liquidation of Ghost Town’s property to pay off its debts rather than allowing it to continue operating under reorganization in the hope it can turn a profit and regain its footing.
The slide originated from Ghost Town’s property where a massive series of terraced retaining walls gave way. Geologists either haven’t determined or aren’t saying whether the slide was due to natural causes or was triggered by failure of the retaining wall.
Ghost Town hired a contractor to make repairs to the retaining wall when a portion collapsed in 2007. But some of the old railroad tie walls were left in place, resulting in a combination of new and old work. That in turn has led to finger pointing by Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver and Carolina-A-Contracting of Maggie Valley, which did the work in 2007.
Macon County was the first to be targeted under a statewide initiative launched in 2006 to map areas prone to landslide in the mountains.
Over a one-and-a-half-year period, a team of state geologists led by geologist Rick Wooten surveyed 770 locations in Macon County and found 165 landslides evident from photo records between 1951 and the present.
The bulk of the slides have occurred on public land, on the highest reaches of the mountains. Landslide risk increases critically at 22 degrees of slope or right around a 40 percent grade, according to the data collected during the mapping project.
Macon County was the first to be systematically mapped because of the Peeks Creek slide, which killed five people when it ripped down the mountain for 2.5 miles. Watauga County came next because it has the most landslides recorded, followed by Buncombe because it has the most people. Jackson County is slated to be surveyed this year, with Haywood County next in the queue.
The landslide hazard mapping program creates a comprehensive database of historic slides and potential slide pathways that can be integrated with a county’s GIS maps. They can help emergency management officials plan evacuation procedures, but they can also help shape policy.
While Wooten said he is not in the business of making policy recommendations, he did have a definite idea of what his research has taught him.
“One thing that comes through in all the work we’ve done is there has to be a wholesale approach to where and how people build on steep landscapes,” said Wooten.
While residents wait for answers and 16,000 tons of debris hangs precariously over the Rich Cove community, an army of people are assessing the aftermath of the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.
Representatives from the North Carolina Geological Survey, the Division of Water Quality and the Division of Land Quality have all made trips up the steep mountain to survey the slide site.
Haywood County’s contingent includes its erosion and sediment control team and the county engineer, while geologists from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and an engineer from Ghost Town in the Sky have also studied the impact firsthand.
Yet, not one of these experts has officially determined the clause of the mudslide, which traveled more than a half-mile down the slope, seriously damaging several homes and leading to the evacuation of 45 residents.
They won’t say if the slide is a natural disaster or caused by failed retaining walls on the slope, a terraced system that dates to various time periods. The answer could make all the difference for homeowners, whose insurance policies won’t cover a natural landslide.
For Kurt Biedler, the lingering question is not simply when he’ll return home, but if he’ll be able to go back at all. The foundation of Biedler’s house has been compromised and cracks riddle its walls.
Though Biedler plans to move south of Asheville for now, he is closely watching the response to the slide.
“When one gets displaced from their home, there’s a million questions we have,” said Biedler. “But we know it takes time to get the answers.”
The place to go looking for answers undoubtedly rests at the top of the mountain, where Ghost Town’s retaining walls clearly gave way. Whether they caused the slide or the slide caused their failure is still being debated.
But getting up the mountain to fix what’s left has now become an ordeal. The landslide has thrown major debris across at least two parts of Rich Cove Road, blocking the only direct path to Ghost Town by vehicle.
Early Thursday afternoon, a team of geologists from N.C. Geological Survey made their third trip to the slide, along with Marc Pruett, Haywood County’s erosion control officer; and Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.
Fie Top Road provides one detour to the top, climbing up west of the slide on Rich Cove.
Halfway up the road, the team must make a pit stop at a staging area set up on the side of Fie Top. The two trucks are armored with snow chains to tackle the narrow, icy road ahead that snakes across the mountain toward Ghost Town.
But the road only leads so far, and they eventually park the trucks and hike down a steep, snow-covered path.
Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C. Geologic Survey, said the main goal that day was to familiarize themselves with the site, collect information, take photographs and define hazardous areas that are prone to landslides in the future.
“Public safety is the important thing at this point. That’s really our focus,” said Wooten. “We’re really not in the position or have the expertise to assess the wall. We’re geologists and not engineers.”
Still, Wooten has said that heavy snowmelt and more than two inches of rain both contributed to the slide. He has put in a request with the National Weather Service to compile a weather synopsis of the weeks and months leading up to the event.
Back on Ghost Town’s property, geologists measured cracks in the ground, just yards away from children’s rides stopped in mid-air. Some of these cracks were so deep that geologists needed the aid of a meter-long hiking pole to discover where the crevice ended.
A major source of worry for Wooten and his team continues to be moving land near the slide that has been vertically displaced by almost four feet. At first, the drop had measured only three feet.
“That’s why this is an area of concern,” said Wooten.
Meanwhile, Shumpert hopped over the fence to take a closer look at the retaining wall. Since this was the first time Shumpert was getting a close look at the structure, he said he was not prepared to make any official statements.
There’s no way to prevent landslides in the mountains, but there is a way to make their impact on humans more predictable.
That’s the message that N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten and the staff of the North Carolina Geological Survey have impressed on the counties in which they have compiled landslide hazard maps. But while the landslide maps offer a vast amount of useful information for county planning offices and elected leaders, they don’t come with any regulatory directives.
That’s why two nonprofits, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association and South Wings, organized a fly-over of Macon County’s most significant landslides last week.
“You forget there are people who live below who can be killed,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of LTWA. “It’s easy to get caught up in the language of the law rather than what’s really at stake — which is public safety.”
Close on the heels of a headline-grabbing landslide in Maggie Valley, the timing for the trip couldn’t have been better.
Macon County is currently at a crucial point in the process of developing a steep slope ordinance that would set firm guidelines for where and how developers can build on mountainsides.
Macon Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland –– a grating contractor and a developer by trade –– is worried that the fallout from landslides will result in a blanket state-level solution if counties don’t find their own answers.
“Everybody talks about property rights but when your mountain falls on me, that’s a problem,” Penland said. “If we don’t handle this issue then the state will, and I’d prefer we do it ourselves.”
Penland said he was disappointed that none of the county commissioners participated in the fly-over and he worries they won’t support a strong enough ordinance.
“I just hope that Macon County has wise enough commissioners to realize that they represent 35,000 people and not make the mistake Haywood County made,” Penland said. “The staff needs a little support. They’ve been great. It’s time to take the leash off and let the dogs hunt.”
A steep slope committee has spent the past year drafting proposed regulations and will submit its recommendations to the planning board on Thursday, Feb. 18. The ordinance requires developers and graders to hire a certified engineer when building on slopes that exceed a certain threshold. Determining that threshold has been a matter of debate for the committee, however.
Under the final recommendation, the full weight of the ordinance will apply on slopes exceeding a 40 percent grade, according to the committee’s chair, Al Slagle. But the ordinance also creates a middle ground on slopes between 30 and 40 percent. In those cases, the county would have discretion to make a developer comply with various aspects of the ordinance. The landslide hazard maps will weigh heavily in the decision by county planners on how to treat developers falling in that middle range.
Jackson and Haywood counties already have steep slope guidelines. Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance applies on any slope above 30 percent grade and Haywood’s on slopes above 35 percent. Swain County has no steep slope ordinance.
One of the issues that has arisen with respect to the Maggie Valley and Wildflower slides is the financial burden placed on counties when slides originate on private property with a bankrupt owner.
Because homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover landslides, there is a real financial threat to downhill property owners. Only strong policy guidelines can offer protection in those instances, by imposing security bonds or penalties. That’s a part of the discussion Sanders wanted the stakeholders to understand by actually seeing the proximity of homes to the path of recent slides.
“People think we’re trying to over-regulate or step into people’s lives, but it’s really about protection,” Sanders said. “Those people will likely end up in financial ruin and there needs to be something in place to protect them.”
The threat of another landslide isn’t stopping volunteers from facing the mudslide head-on and helping wherever they can. Local volunteers are working in the absence of state and federal aid for residents who find themselves banished from their homes indefinitely.
A community effort was launched last week to clean up debris on Landing Drive, allowing five families who live along the private road to get back and forth to their homes again. Contractors Colin Edwards and Johnny Lowe donated equipment, materials and time to clear debris. They’ve also installed a new culvert.
“I wanted to help these people that couldn’t get home,” said Edwards.
Volunteers worked two days last week to successfully clear the road.
“It’s been a pretty big job,” said Edwards. “It’s a lot bigger job than what I thought it was going to be.”
Edwards credited Maggie Valley Fire Chief Tim Carver for organizing volunteers and Marc Pruett, Haywood County erosion control officer, for writing permits to allow the work.
The Town of Maggie Valley donated gravel to replace the road bed. Others who have donated time or supplies to the cleanup effort on Landing Drive include the Maggie Valley and Jonathan Creek Fire Departments, and Pioneer Feed & Seed.
Two Methodist groups, Step by Step and United Methodist Committee on Relief, have dedicated time to helping residents affected by the slide nearly every day since it occurred.
They helped resident Kurt Biedler move all his belongings — including furniture — from his badly damaged home. The groups have also donated firewood to those families whose stockpiles were swept away by the slide.
Step by Step is based in Clyde and was formed after the floods of 2004. The group has remained active to assist in disaster relief since then.
The Haywood County chapter of the American Red Cross has received applications from 22 families for assistance.
Churches in Maggie Valley have a disaster relief fund set up at the Maggie Valley branch of BB&T bank that will be used to help residents.
Donations must be marked Greater Maggie Valley Natural Disaster Fund, Maggie Valley UMC and can be mailed to 4192 Soco Road, Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751.
While buckling and cracks were readily visible in old retaining walls built out of railroad ties at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park owners failed to officially notify anyone with Haywood County of the town of Maggie Valley.
Mountainside construction regulations passed by Haywood County in 2007 likely could have stopped the massive landslide in Maggie Valley from happening, if the right people had known about the potentially unstable slope being held back by a series of terraced retaining walls.
But the county planning and engineering department did not know, and even if it had, it would have lacked jurisdiction.
Ghost Town, where the slide originated, is in the town limits of Maggie Valley and the county’s slope laws don’t apply there.
The town could “opt-in” to the county’s slope ordinance, but hasn’t done so. Maggie could choose to adopt its own slope ordinance, but it hasn’t done that, either. Town Manager Tim Barth said the town board has never discussed whether the town should adopt the county’s slope ordinance or one like it.
Had the county slope ordinance applied, and had County Engineer Mark Shumpert been alerted to possible instability, he could have stepped in.
“I didn’t know there were any problems up there. That is news to me,” Shumpert said.
The county slope ordinance is usually triggered when an earth-moving project exceeds a certain threshold — depending on the height and pitch of the excavated slope. It typically does not apply to slope work prior to 2007 when the ordinance was passed.
But there is an exception. The county engineer has the authority to declare any slope that poses an imminent danger a “critical slope,” and force a property owner to make repairs regardless of whether the work pre-dated the passage of the ordinance.
“If it is a critical slope that looks like there is a potential for failure, we could require something to be done,” Shumpert said. “I didn’t know there was a wall up there in imminent danger of failing.”
Repairs to the giant system of terraced retaining walls were made in 2007. If that work had fallen under county’s slope ordinance, Shumpert would have inspected the site and likely realized that problems were still lurking, he said.
While many people in Maggie Valley knew — from Ghost Town employees to residents living below it — no one informed the county. Neither Shumpert, nor County Planner Kris Boyd, nor Erosion Control Officer Marc Pruett were alerted to the problem.
Barth said he was not aware of anyone with Ghost Town reporting the potential of an unstable slope to the town.
Shumpert is usually called in after a slope has already failed. There were roughly half a dozen small slope failures in the county last year, more than in the previous years due to higher rainfall in 2009. He also got a few pre-emptive calls for the first time from people concerned about the potential of a slope failure. None rose to the level of being designated a critical slope, however, he said.
“For the most part, we are getting calls after the fact. The stuff we are getting preemptively, we have been able to help them get a contractor involved before it gets worse,” Shumpert said.
Last winter, there were two landslides in Maggie. In one, a home was reduced to matchsticks with a family inside, but they miraculously escaped alive. In another, a slope below a house slumped away but stopped just sort of taking out the foundation.
In both, the county forced the property owners where the slide originated to make repairs.
One of the homeowners ultimately filed for bankruptcy. The home was foreclosed on and the county is now putting the bank on the hooks for repairs, Shumpert said.
Five years ago, a woman in Maggie Valley was killed when a landslide crushed her home.
Shumpert said the rash of landslides in Haywood County have all been a result of earth-moving. None occurred naturally on an untampered site, but all originated from a spot where excavation or construction had occurred.
On a positive note, no slope failures have occurred at sites subject to the county’s ordinance since its passage in 2007 — suggesting the ordinance works when followed.
The problems instead have all occurred on sites that were exempt from the slope ordinance — either because they predated the regulations or, in the case of the recent slide, fell outside the county’s jurisdiction.
A bill percolating in the state legislature would force the myriad mountain counties and towns that still lack slope ordinances to adopt them. The bill spells out the bare minimum for such an ordinance — modeled almost identically to Haywood County’s — but allows counties to go tougher if they want to.
It has been stalled for four years, stuck in various committees unable to garner widespread support it needs to pass, however.
“I am a bit frustrated,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has championed the bill. “We are dealing with a situation where human life is at stake.”
Rapp said the bill doesn’t aim to stop mountainside construction, but does insist it is done safely.
“They are going to have to build to exacting standards so we don’t put people’s lives at risk,” Rapp said. “This is unacceptable, what is going on now.”
Rapp said he plans to keep introducing the bill until he can get it passed.
“What we are getting is a slow erosion of opposition. I just hope we don’t have to lose lives in the process,” Rapp said. “I think this would be a wake-up to county commissioners in counties without any slope ordinances as well as a wake-up call for the North Carolina legislature.”