fr 441landslideThe Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the National Park Service are offering up to a $500,000 incentive for early completion of landslide repairs to U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — indicating both entities’ concerns about the road closure’s effects on Cherokee’s economy.

fr landslideA rain-induced landslide in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park left a gaping hole in U.S. 441, but its impact could leave a lot bigger hole in the local economy if park officials are not able to fix the road in time to save at least part of the tourist season.

fr landslideAfter four major landslides, one death, several destroyed and damaged homes, washed out roads, and a $50,000 clean-up bill, steep slope construction rules are coming to Maggie Valley.

Some of the lots in a 2,200-acre gated subdivision saddling the Cowee Mountain range in Macon County are being advertised across the Southeast for what’s being touted as bargain prices. The lots are slated for a big one-day, onsite sell Saturday, Oct. 1.

Prices have been knocked down from former highs of $100,000 to $300,000, to as low as $14,000, and up to the mid $30,000 range. There are 98 finished lots and more than 500 acres under new ownership.

The development, now called The Ridges but known better by its former name, Wildflower, has a troubled history. Landsides and road issues plagued the development, a project of Ultima Carolina of Atlanta, and the project fell victim to a weak economy and paralyzed housing market.

More than half of about 151 property owners in Wildflower defaulted on their mortgage payments by July 2010, walking away from dreams of “flipping” the property during the dizzying financial possibilities of the housing boom.

After Ultima failed to sell enough lots to make the bank loan, the development was foreclosed on by BB&T. The bank managed to offload the development recently to the new entity, Leed Enterprises. BB&T obviously wanted Wildflower off its books, selling it at a rather substantial loss for just $1 million.

The new developers, which include local Macon County businessman L.C. Jones, say any problems associated with Wildflower was then, and this is now at newly named The Ridges:

“There were some issues, but those are resolved,” said Michelle Masta, a spokeswoman for the project. “We have a well-funded group, we have a stake in this community, and we have eliminated any problems.”

Leed Enterprises, in a news release, noted it has retained a national engineering company and a Franklin-based engineering firm and solved the earth-moving issues in the development. Masta said a landslide area has been abandoned and a conservation easement entered into. She said the original developer had built a road “on three springheads,” setting the stage for multiple problems that are now resolved.

Still, the new developers have an uphill climb if they want to convince skeptical onlookers in Macon County, who view Wildflower as the pinnacle of out-of-control, speculator-driven mountain land development.

Susan Ervin, a longtime member of the Macon County Planning Board, noted: “We worked hard to get sensible slope development regulation — but it didn’t happen. Now, the lots are back on the sale block. What are the ‘fire sale’ prices going to do to the real estate comps, and the hopes of other landowners and realtors to sell a piece of land at a fair price? What assurance do we have that the development will be done well this time? What control do we have? Do the people looking at lots up there have any idea about the North Carolina Geological Survey Slope Movement Hazard Maps? Do they know there are unstable soils up there?  Down here in the valley, we know it.”

The state might have pulled the plug on a long-range project to map landslide prone areas in the mountains, but Haywood County hopes to take matters into its own hands.

Shortly after Republican lawmakers axed the state’s landslide mapping unit and laid off a team of five state geologists, Gordon Small, a longtime volunteer with Haywood Waterways Association, began pondering how to continue on.

Small hopes to raise grant money to hire the geologists on a contract basis to do the maps for Haywood County, a project that could take 18 months and cost more than $500,000.

Haywood County commissioners this week pledged unanimous support for the idea if funding could be found.

“I’m proud of my county,” Small said afterwards. “Now the big deal is raising the bucks. The fact that the county unanimously supported it is a big, big help.”

Haywood County has had its share of landslides and destroyed homes where the occupants narrowly escaped death. Emergency workers have found themselves digging people out of rubble in pitch-black rain storms, unsure whether more of the mountain could still collapse.

“For emergency preparedness it is critical you have this in place,” said County Manager Marty Stamey.

Commissioner Bill Upton said if he was buying property or building a house, he would want to know if there was a high landslide risk.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a surveyor and the only Republican on the board, said the maps would hopefully encourage smart building.

“I occasionally have clients that want to develop in areas and I have basically told them they shouldn’t but they do anyway,” Ensley said.

If the county had maps like these, it could at least require more detailed engineering.

“There needs to be enough sets of eyes or a different type of development criteria for those areas,” Ensley said.

Landslide hazard mapping has faced opposition from some development and real estate interests, who fear the stigma of landslides would unfairly blacklist property.

That’s exactly what happened in Macon County, the first of just a few counties to receive landslide hazard maps. An attempt by a planning group tasked with writing recommendations for a steep-slope ordinance derailed, in part, because they used the maps as indicators of where builders might need more regulatory oversight — triggering a backlash that the maps were not accurate and were confusing.

Marc Pruett, the soil and erosion control officer for Haywood County, doesn’t understand why the landslide hazard mapping was seen as controversial.

“Wouldn’t you want to know if your brake fluid was low before you run your car down the highway at 60 miles per hour,” Pruett said.

Small thinks as a whole, buyers will look more favorably on buying somewhere if they have access to landslide risks.

“I do believe in the long term that counties that have this information will have an advantage in the real estate market,” Small said.

Opponents also feared the landslide hazard maps were a backdoor for development regulations.

Small said he was pleased that county commissioners put public safety and common sense first.

Three of the laid-off state geologists came with Small to the commissioners’ meeting this week. They were pleased to see a community openly value their work after being shot down by the state.

“We have seen more landslides than anyone else in the state, and possibly the east coast, and we hope to continue using this expertise to benefit WNC,” said Stephen Fuemmeler, one of the geologists.

Jennifer Bauer, another of the state geologists, hopes Haywood Waterways can raise the funds, not just so she will have a job but so that the work will carry on.

“Making the citizens of Western North Carolina aware of landslide hazards is something I’m passionate about,” Bauer said.

The state landslide mapping team was created in 2005 with the mission of mapping landslide hazards in every mountain county. The team only finished four counties: Macon, Buncombe, Henderson and Watauga.

The unit was working on Jackson County when it was halted in its tracks. Haywood County was next in line for landslide mapping when the program was killed.

To get involved or contribute, contact Haywood Waterways Association or Small at 828.734.9538.

Republican lawmakers have pulled the plug on the state’s landslide mapping unit, terminating a controversial project to assess which slopes in the mountains are landslide prone.

A team of five state geologists working on the maps are being laid-off this week, saving the state $355,000 a year.

“They are very disappointed as we all are. We felt this was important work from the perspective of public safety that had a lot of value, and we are disappointed we couldn’t complete it,” said Rick Wooten, a senior state geologist and landslide expert based in Asheville.

When the team was created in 2005, their mission was to map landslide hazards in every mountain county. The team only finished four counties: Macon, Buncombe, Henderson and Watauga.

The unit was working on Jackson County when it halted in its tracks.

“I thought it was an added benefit and I was glad we were at the front end of it,” said Tom Massie, an advocate for landslide mapping in Jackson County who serves on the Mountain Resources Commission. “Anyone getting ready to buy a piece of property or build a home would know whether it was a suitable site. Now they are going to have to proceed at their own risk.”

Haywood County was next in line, but won’t being seeing its landslide maps either.

“I feel like we will be losing a valuable tool in the planning process for the land that is left to develop in Haywood County,” said Marc Pruett, an erosion control officer in Haywood County.

Landslide mapping has proven controversial, however. Critics fear the stigma of being in landslide hazard zones would make property hard to sell or develop.

“Certainly some of the legislators have been very open in their statements that they viewed these maps as a backdoor to regulation and were not the least bit sorry to see these maps go away,” said DJ Gerken, and Asheville-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That begs the question as to whether it was truly budget concerns and cost-savings that prompted lawmakers to target the landslide mapping. Indeed, environmental policies and funding have taken a big hit under the Republican controlled legislature. (See related story in Outdoors section.)

Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said landslide mapping was killed to save money — not because of an ideological stance.

“We had to make cuts throughout government this year and one of the areas that I didn’t feel like was a ‘have-to’ thing was the landslide mapping program,” Gillespie said.

But, Gillespie makes no bones about it: the state shouldn’t meddle in steep slope regulations. And Gillespie indeed feared the landslide maps would become ammunition to push through slope construction laws at the state level.

“That’s what they were doing it for,” Gillespie said of the landslide maps.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he fielded a call from emergency responders in Haywood County — where several homes have been hit by landslides in the past decade — asking him not to cut the program. The landslide team was always one of the first on the scene when slides struck.

“Our role was to help out the emergency managers figure out what happened. Is it safe to work around here? Is there still unstable material up here? If there is, where might it go? Do we need to evacuate people? When is it safe to go back?” Wooten said.

If the state had plenty of money, Davis can’t say what the fate of the landslide mapping unit would have been.

“To be perfectly candid, I don’t know. That is a different conversation. Since we didn’t have the money we didn’t get to that conversation,” said Davis.

 

Good riddance

Not everyone is sad to see landslide maps fall by the wayside. Lamar Sprinkle, a surveyor in Macon County and a member of the planning board, said he feels like Macon is penalized as one of the four counties to have completed maps.

“As a property owner I would think if my property lay in one of these zones, it would devalue my property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said a prospective buyer from out of state would likely be turned off from property that falls in landslide zone, without knowing exactly what that meant.

“If I went down to the coast and there was some kind of red flag throwed up to me that I didn’t totally understand, I probably wouldn’t buy that piece of property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said he doesn’t understand how the maps were arrived at and is hesitant to take them at face value. He said the maps are a knee-jerk reaction to the Peek’s Creek tragedy. While a tragedy indeed, Sprinkle believes it was a random act of God. He sees landslide mapping as an arbitrary and fruitless endeavor that will do little to actually predict where a slide might hit in the future.

“There are some things we don’t have any control over,” Sprinkle said.

In wind storms, trees have fallen on homes, one even killing a couple inside.

“You don’t go passing an ordinance to make everybody cut the trees around their house,” Sprinkle said.

Ron Winecoff of ReMax Elite Realty in Franklin said Macon would be better off without the maps. He, too, fears it could devalue property.

Winecoff said Realtors in Macon have been confused over whether they are obligated to tell prospective buyers when property falls in the landslide hazard zone. Do the same rules apply as lead paint or asbestos? For now, the answer is no, supposedly.

“The state board of Realtors has told us we do not have to disclose it and so we don’t disclose it, but I don’t know whether that is right or not,” Winecoff said. “If you are aware of it, any item that effects the property adversely needs to be disclosed. Technically probably we should be disclosing those maps because they do exist.”

Critics of landslide mapping fear that property undeserving of such a label would be blacklisted and become impossible to sell.

More often that not, however, the landslide mapping would help people figure out where on a lot to put a house. Landslides follow predictable paths down the mountains, and building outside that path is usually all that is needed, say experts.

The path of a landslide is about 60 feet wide — about 30 feet to each side of the natural drainage course.

Gerken pointed to the Peek’s Creek disaster in Macon County, where 15 homes were destroyed in 2005. Those built closer to the drainage were flattened while those 10 yards to the side survived intact.

That’s why Pruett sees the landslide maps as a planning tool.

“If you had a chance to buy a piece of property and you knew where there might be a hazardous spot, wouldn’t you want to move your house 50 feet away from it? How could that not be helpful?” Pruett said.

There is, no doubt, some property in the mountains simply too steep, too unstable and too prone to landslides to build on — as unfortunate as that may be for the person who owns it and would like to sell it, Pruett said.

“Sometimes you just have to look a bear in the face and say it is a bear,” Pruett said.

But the landslide maps shouldn’t be blamed for pointing out the obvious.

While the homebuilders and real estate groups have actively lobbied against the landslide maps at the state level, not all developers are against them.

Ben Bergen, a builder in Jackson County and board member on the local Homebuilders Association, thinks the maps would have been a good tool.

“We would have liked to see it through to completion,” said Bergen, owner of the green building firm Legacy. “North Carolina is a buyer beware state in terms of property. I agree it is up to the buyer to inform themselves, but I thought it was going to very useful as a builder.”

At the very least, the maps would alert people to buy supplemental landslide insurance, Massie said. Regular homeowners insurance doesn’t cover landslides. Homeowners are out of luck — whether a home is totally flattened or the foundation destabilized due to shifting soil. They can’t sell their home, nor will insurance compensate them. Meanwhile, they have to keep paying the mortgage on a house they can’t live in. Often, bankruptcy and foreclosure become the only option.

The state has taken pity on some landslide victims and bailed them out. The state spent $3.2 million to buy out damaged areas of the Peek’s Creek slide in macon County.

Meanwhile, fixing a landslide in Maggie Valley cost the state and federal government a combined $1.4 million.

Gerken said the cost of landslide mapping would pay for itself by avoiding such disasters.

“It is an extremely affordable investment to avoid those costs,” Gerken said.

Gerken equated it to floodplain mapping, a long-standing practice that curtails building in flood-prone areas.

“Not because they happen every year, but it doesn’t make sense to build structures in an area that will likely get hit every hundred years,” Gerken said.

The maps aren’t exactly sweeping indictments of every steep mountainside. In Macon County, 11 percent of the county falls in the high landslide hazard zone. In Buncombe, its 10 percent, and just 6 percent in Henderson. Watauga comes in higher with 20 percent.

 

How to map a landslide

Unlike lightning, landslides nearly always strike in the same place twice. Mapping old slides is the single biggest indicator of where future slides will occur.

Many of the homes destroyed in slides over the past decade were built on top of old landslide deposits — something that landslide mapping could have warned people about, Wooten said.

“Some landslide deposits go back hundreds of thousands of years. They are usually quite large because they are an accumulation of many landslides that occur over geologic time,” Wooten said.

Wooten’s team has entered 3,000 old landslides in the state’s database so far. There are thousands more out there.

The mapping falls short of being able to predict the next slide, however.

“People say, ‘Well, where is it going to happen next time,’” Wooten said. “Eventually over geologic time it is going to reoccur.”

Geologists rely most heavily, however, on aerial photography over several decades to find evidence of slides, which remain visible for years.

In Jackson County, aerial photography from the early 1950s still revealed slides dating back to 1940, a fateful year when 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, triggering thousands of slides across the region.

Robbie Shelton, Jackson County’s erosion officer, was one of the team’s go-to consultants. He often acted as a guide, helping the team scout their way up mountainsides using locally known dirt roads and cart paths to reach an old slide.

After tagging along on the ground reconnaissance missions, Shelton knows what to look for and can hopefully warn builders and developers even though the county won’t have a complete map.

“I feel like I have a little better handle on it, having been out with Rick and his team, to be able to say, ‘This might not be the best place for you to think about building and you might want to consult a geotech,’” Shelton said.

The landslide unit has been working frantically to get the Jackson County maps to a good stopping point, and enter all the data they have so far into the database.

Wooten said he will drop off whatever GIS files they have done with Jackson County sometime next week, and then formally shut the books on the project.

While interesting, the half-finished map of where old landslides occurred is only somewhat helpful. The most important step — translating the location of old slides to identify low, moderate and high hazard zones — hasn’t been done.

While Wooten will remain employed as a state geologist and landslide expert, he won’t be finishing up the maps on his own.

“The message from the legislature was they do not want the mapping done,” Wooten said.

 

Putting the maps to work

So far, no county has banned building outright in high hazard landslide zones. What’s more likely is that landslide hazard zones will pinpoint where to impose regulations.

But of the four counties that were mapped, only Buncombe has actually done anything with them. In Henderson and Watauga, the landslide maps have found a cozy home on the shelf with no sign of being taken down anytime soon.

In Macon County, planners hope the landslide map will be incorporated into a new steep slope ordinance currently in the works. If passed by county commissioners, Macon will join just half a dozen WNC counties with slope ordinances — ranks that also include Haywood, Jackson and Buncombe.

Macon’s ordinance sets out a few simple parameters, like limiting the height and steepness of cut-and-fill slopes. On the steepest slopes, builders would have to consult an engineer.

And that’s where the landslide maps come in. Areas that fall in moderate to high landslide hazard zones would also require engineers to build on.

Wooten said that is a reasonable application for the landslide maps.

“If you were looking for a place to buy and the maps were available, you could see areas where there is a high landslide potential that would give you the information to seek additional help from geologists or engineers,” Wooten said.

But Sprinkle, who sits on the Macon planning board, doesn’t think the landslide maps have a place in the county’s ordinance, questioning their accuracy. And now that the landslide mapping team is dismantled, who can they call if they find an error in the maps, Sprinkle asked.

“There are lot of pitfalls in having maps with nobody to look after them,” Sprinkle said.

 

What’s next

While landslide mapping is gone for now, future lawmakers could start it back up. But a team will have to be re-assembled and the learning curve repeated.

“We paid to develop a lot of expertise in landslide mapping that we are now throwing to the wind,” Gerken said.

Landslide mapping gained traction following two back-to-back tropical storms that dumped a massive amount of rain on the mountains in 2005, triggering dozens of landslides. The most tragic was Peek’s Creek in Macon County, where five people, including a child, were killed and 15 homes destroyed.

“That was probably the event that got the attention of legislators,” Wooten said.

Gerken said the loss of life is inevitable without a more cautionary approach to siting homes.

“This short-term political decision simply cannot hold because we are going to see the consequences again,” Gerken said. “These kinds of events are part of mountain geology, and they will happen again. It is only a matter of time.”

 

 

See the maps online

To see Macon County’s landslide map, go to www.geology.enr.state.nc.us/Landslide_Info/MaconCounty.html. A partial map for Jackson will eventually be posted with a link at wfs.enr.state.nc.us/fist/.

By most accounts, calling Art Williams a hands-on developer would be a pretty fair description. For decades, Williams was in the business of subdivision building, first in Florida and then in Western North Carolina.

In pretty much everything, his word was the final say. He picked the land to be developed, he divvied up the plots, he instructed engineers and construction crews. He even sold many of the lots himself.

Even as his health failed, said his wife Anne, her husband was routinely on the scene at the developments. His regular contractors said the same. He was there when the pavement was laid on the roads in Alarka Creek Properties, one of the Williams’ first developments in Swain County. And it was he who approved the words “state-approved paved roads” in brochures advertising the developments. He signed off on the erosion and sediment control plans for the 5.5 miles of roads that crisscross the development.

But it was not Williams who footed the bill when some of those roads began to deteriorate and slide from the mountains they were cut steeply into.

Of the homeowners in the subdivision, many bought their properties directly from Williams and believed the state-approved-roads pitch, until they were left with $40,000 worth of repairs and roads that were, in places, perpetually in peril.

This hadn’t been part of the purchase bargain. And in 2008, the costs and safety concerns reached a critical mass. The Alarka Creek Properties Homeowners Association took the late Williams’ Cane Creek Development Corporation to court, charging that he and his team misled them, saddling them with defective and dangerous roads.

Three years later, they won, to the tune of $3 million — the largest judgment court clerks had ever seen in Swain County — and threw into sharp relief the ongoing debate in Western North Carolina over steep-slope development and who is responsible when it falls, literally, to pieces.

 

What went wrong?

Alarka Creek Properties is a two-pronged development precisely 5 miles from Exit 69, just west of Bryson City. Its twin developments, Timber Creek Estates and Eagles’ Roost, sweep up the faces of neighboring mountainsides, cradling Alarka Creek neatly between them.

They’re not subdivisions in the traditional sense — there’s no pool or clubhouse, and most of the homes aren’t even within shouting distance of one another. They do have gates and a homeowners’ association, but really, the two developments are collections of retirement retreats and second homes, a mixture of already-built houses and empty plots that boast spectacular vistas of the surrounding landscapes.

The roads that lead to and connect them, though, aren’t for the faint of heart or fragile of vehicle. Sitting at the apex of Eagles’ Roost, facing down the mountain isn’t dissimilar to the slow crest of a rollercoaster’s first descent, peering down the long incline. They drop off steeply to one side and hug the sheer mountainside on the other. And though few cars are around to traverse the lanes, meeting one headed in the opposite direction can be a harrowing experience. The views are pastoral — the drive, less so.

The roads are anywhere from seven to 10 feet across. In places, there are signs of distress — fissures and cracking. They’re all passable now, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“We’ve had three multi-thousand dollar slides, we had a road that we had to move 2,000 feet of with blasting,” said John Foster, the homeowners’ association’s one-time president. “Ultimately, the road probably should not have been put in.”

That is, of course, only his opinion.

But, according to a study done by Bunnell-Lammons Engineering, a geotechnical firm out of Asheville, he’s at least partially correct.

There was never a dedicated, detailed road plan drawn up for Alarka Creek’s roads. Swain County doesn’t require one, and unless a developer plans on leaving the road in the state’s care, neither does the state.

There was, however, the required erosion and sediment control plan that detailed how the roads would meet state standards for erosion and run-off on the steep fill slopes — manmade grades with fill dirt pulled from the surrounding mountain.

It’s not a definitive road-building guide, but it spelled out the basic standards for what would be installed at Alarka Creek: road thickness, slope and drainage measures.

And, said the engineering firm, had developers and contractors followed the plans, the roads probably would’ve been fine.

But they didn’t.

 

Detailing the problems

There are, said the report, four basic reasons for mountain road failure: insufficient pavement thickness, insufficient asphalt compaction, slope instability and bad drainage.

In places, Alarka Creek’s roads showed all four.

Where the plans called for pavement to be two inches thick, in some spots it was only 1.5.  They specified six inches of crushed stone under that pavement. Most roads averaged only 5.4. One had barely more than an inch.

Ninety-five to 96 percent compaction is industry standard for a fill slope — unlike the mountain’s native soil, it hasn’t had thousands of years to build up its structural integrity. The more densely packed, the less likely it’ll move around, cracking and sliding. That’s what the plans called for, too.

Most of the subdivision’s roads averaged between 84 and 89 percent compaction.

And then there’s the slope.

The state recommends a two-to-one, horizontal-to-vertical slope ratio at minimum for a safe road. And again, that’s what appeared on the erosion control plan submitted to the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

But the engineering firm found some of the slopes to be as steep as one-to-one.

“The roadway fill embankments evaluated have a significant potential for instability because the roadway fill embankments are constructed of loose fill that have a steeper slope inclination than fill soil conditions can support,” read the summary report.

In other words, you can’t have loose dirt and a steep road, too, or eventually, you won’t have a road.

“When you have slopes too steep and base and asphalt too thin, the roads are going to fall apart,” said Dan Bryson of Raleigh, the lead attorney on the homeowners’ side. The case, he said, was simple — poorly constructed roads sold through false advertising.

“When they showed homeowners paved road as an inducement to sell, it was a bait and switch,” said Bryson. “There was significant engineers’ testimony that these roads were not built pursuant to local standards. When you build a road, there’s just some basic things you have to do. And it’s going to take a little bit longer, but you just need to do it right.”

Anne Williams, Art Williams’ widow, disagrees with those assertions. As the sole owner of Cane Creek Development, she is the defendant.

Bryson and his legal team pointed to the multiple slides and alligator cracking — patchwork cracks that resemble the crusty reptilian pattern of an alligator’s back — as signs that the roads were faulty from the outset.

“But that’s typical of all roads in [Western] North Carolina, when you pave them,” said Williams. “All the other evidence was that we had done the right thing, we’d done the best roads we could do. State roads slide all the time, and 90 percent of that road is there the same way we built it.”

Could they have gotten a geotechnical engineer, like BLE, to come and test the sites before the road was laid? Sure, said Williams. But no developer does that, she said; it’s too cost prohibitive.

“You‘re selling lots to average people. This is not a country club setting,” said Williams. “We wanted to build in a way that the average person could buy and have a second home, not what we always called the ritzy ditzy.”

Plus, she said, they knew what they were getting.

“They all personally signed [a statement] that they understood that these were private roads and they were inferior to state roads and that the burden of keeping up the roads would be on the homeowners’ association,” said Williams.

And regardless of the roads’ initial construction, that much is true. Which points to a problem facing not just Swain County, but every mountainside subdivision in the region.

 

Caveat Emptor

Paul Carlson is a man familiar with degraded land. He’s the executive director of the Franklin-based Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a non-profit group that works in land preservation. He is concerned about the glut of developments in WNC such as Alarka Creek, where steep lots connected by questionable roads have now fallen to owners to maintain. And those owners may not have always done their homework.

“Perhaps they hadn’t done significant due diligence to find out what they’re getting into, and now collectively own a liability,” said Carlson. And what then? “With poorly designed road systems on these properties, every year that passes the liability is increasing. Well, who’s going to be responsible for that stuff?”

That’s a question that legal precedents like the Alarka Creek case are looking to settle, but historically, a lot of homeowners have been left holding the bag on decaying roads they didn’t think they signed up for.

John Foster certainly didn’t. When he bought his plot in Alarka Creek, he didn’t dream Williams would sell him a lot on an unsafe road. But he didn’t look too far into it, either.

“I thought it was steep, but again with the advertisement of state-approved, I thought, ‘OK, if the state of North Carolina is going to approve this, then I’m OK with it,’” said Foster. “We did sign a release, but what we understood was we were going to maintain the roads, but we were going to be given roads that were maintainable.”

But this, of course, is not actually a given.

The truth is that, when it comes to private roads, no one is really checking.

During pre-trial interviews, lawyers asked that very question: is there anyone who makes sure these roads are being constructed properly? A state agency? Local authorities? A retired volunteer? Anyone?

“When you construct a house, you have an inspector come in and say ‘this house is substantially complete and it has been constructed in conformance with the plans and specs submitted on file’… to your knowledge, there is no one who does that for roads or private roads?” Bryson’s fellow attorney Scott Harris asked Victor Lofquist, a civil engineer in Sylva who did the erosion plan for Alarka Creek and most of Williams’ other projects.

“Not that I am aware of anywhere,” replied Lofquist.

Doug Parker, the excavator who helped install the roads, replied similarly.

“To my knowledge, there is no equivalent to that (a building inspector) on a road development project,” said Parker.

And that’s become pretty clear in the years since mountainside developments began to see their vogue.

Roads have been splintering and slipping off the hills in subdivisions around the region, and local officials began to realize that maybe someone should, in fact, be looking.

 

Road Regulation

Enter subdivision ordinances, those controversial local laws that give officials a little more power over what’s going up in their jurisdiction and how it’s built.

Haywood County has one that limits cut slopes to 1.5 to one, and spells out things that state erosion control standards do not, such as no organic matter in roadbeds; it will decompose and crack holes in the street. And they keep tabs to make sure it’s all being done according to plan.

“What would happen is if somebody built a subdivision road here that was subject to the erosion control law is you would submit your plan to us, we would give you approval, we would inspect it periodically. Then we do perform a final inspection,” said Marc Pruett, erosion control program director in Haywood County.

In Jackson County, a similar ordinance was passed, drawing some ire from developers in a locale heavy laden with second homes peppering the steep mountain faces.

But when it comes to such laws, there is a schism in the church of steep-slope construction.

Parker told attorneys in his deposition that those regulations helped grind his subdivision road-building work to a halt in Jackson County.

“We used to (build roads) a lot until we had a subdivision ordinance in this county and then it came to a stop,” said Parker. “Pretty much everything in this area that stopped developing because there was restraints of subdivision ordinances.”

Swain County has no such regulations. There was some movement on the idea around 2007. A committee was even formed, spurred by the news that emergency vehicles couldn’t traverse some of the county’s dicier residential roads. Recommendations were made, but nothing ever came of them. Swain commissioners apparently lacked the political will, in a county that doesn’t even have a planning board.

In neighboring Macon County, a so-called steep slope ordinance is in talks. Macon is dealing with the aftermath of the Wildflower development, which is the apocryphal, when-roads-attack story that seems to drift into most steep-slope conversations.

Wildflower was a behemoth of a development on the side of Cowee Mountain that broke ground in 2005, at the height of the mountain real estate upswing. At the time, it was controversial, but only because local residents feared such an influx of inhabitants would overstretch their resources.

Four years later, most of its lots were in foreclosure. Then the ground broke on it: One of its key thoroughfares collapsed, a landslide followed and a subsequent geological survey cast serious doubt on the rest of the roads in the place. Downslope residents were warned to brace for debris in case of extreme weather.

The neighborhood’s manager defended the roads, calling the collapse an isolated incident and pointing to the fact that the rest of the roads had erosion control approval.

But so, presumably, did the decimated road.

 

Finding solutions

Back on Alarka, the victorious homeowners are not yet rejoicing. Anne Williams maintains that she is an 81-year-old widow who had nothing to do with the roads’ construction and has no money to pay $3 million for their repairs. She said her refusal to settle with the homeowners wasn’t stubbornness, but insolvency.

“The fact is we lost on Alarka. We may have put in $3 million, but none of it came out of the profit. We have not had to pay income tax for profit reasons for at least five years, if not longer than that,” said Williams. She said she’s closed Cane Creek Development, laid off the staff and headed back to Florida to live off her Social Security.

Dan Bryson, however, thinks Williams’ cries of poormouth are, at best, disingenuous. He’s starting another proceeding against her that, in legalese, is called ‘piercing the veil.’ Basically, he’s going after all the other corporations she has, trying to draw some of the sizeable settlement from them.

In the rest of the region, though, the problem of unstable roads persists, though subdivision ordinances and the economy are cutting down on the number of new substandard streets going down.

Gordon Small, who works with the Haywood Waterway Association, is working on a project to help new developers find the most suitable road locations in the first place, rewarding them with a certification if they follow expert suggestions.

“The No.1 source of non-point pollution — or mud in the creek  — is roads,” said Small. His group is trying to get county commissioners to get on board with the idea.

“You can’t observe this and not be concerned about that,” he said. “People are beginning to recognize that it’s to their advantage to know what’s going to move and what’s not.”

Carlson, with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, said he’s looking toward an inventory of the region’s perilous roads, so at least they can be monitored for movement.

“Clearly in [the last] decade up until 2008, it was absurd to try to make the argument that the highest and best use of steep-slope land was for forestry, but now it’s kind-of interesting to revisit the question,” said Carlson. “I think a lot of these lands — the most marginal, steep, remote lands where these roads were punched in — it may be that no one wants them.”

And for developers still around, the Swain County jury’s decision is ringing clearly through the mountains.

“I think these jurors are tired of developers who come in, deface the mountains and then put in substandard roads, sell out all the lots and then try to avoid liability,” said Dan Bryson. “I hope that this judgment sends a signal to every developer: if you pave a road on a mountain in Western North Carolina, it needs to be done properly.”

The latest filing in a lawsuit over the massive landslide in Maggie Valley last winter claims the collapse of the mountainside was triggered by a broken waterline at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park. Until now, accusations centered on a failed retaining wall intended to shore up the slipping mountainside.

Stabilization of the landslide below Ghost Town in Maggie Valley will begin in two weeks, finally bringing comfort to downslope residents who have lived below the looming threat of another slide for half a year.

The slide last February scoured nearly a mile-long path down the mountainside with a wall of debris 30-feet high and 90-feet wide in places. Only three homes were damaged, but several others suffered destruction to their yards.

The slide initially forced an evacuation of a couple of dozen homes for fear more of the mountainside might collapse. To date, all but one homeowner, whose home suffered the most damage, has returned.

The $1.37 million job will take five months and was awarded this week to Phillips and Jordan, a construction company that specializes in major earth moving. The same company did the rockslide cleanup and stabilization on Interstate 40 last winter.

In addition to recontouring and shoring up the mountainside, the job includes road repairs and returning a dislocated creek to its original course down the mountain.

Al Hill, a seasonal resident with a second home below the slide, said he is pleased stabilization work will be done before the worst of winter. The freeze-thaw cycle can exacerbate erosion and act as a trigger for more landslides.

Engineers and slide specialists who have inspected the site cautioned that the slope remains unstable and another slide is still not out of the question. In fact, a slide could be triggered in the process of stabilizing the slope if the contractor isn’t careful.

As a result, a geotechnical engineer will work on-site each day with the Phillips and Jordan crew.

“It is extraordinarily sensitive,” said Randy Hintz, project manager with McGill Associates, an engineering and planning firm in Asheville overseeing the contract.

The geotech engineer will dictate the final outcome, but not necessarily the approach.

“There is a fine line in telling the contractor how to do his job,” Hintz said. “We tell them how the slope needs to be, and they figure out how to make that happen.”

If things start to look dicey, it might be necessary to send an alert to homeowners to leave the area, Hintz said. The engineer will not always be able to predict how the unstable slope will respond to a particular strategy when the contractors begin moving dirt.

Landslide experts and engineers believe the slide was triggered by a collapsed retaining wall on Ghost Town’s property. Ghost Town had struggled to shore up the unstable and nearly vertical slope on and off over the years.

When the mountaintop was leveled off to make way for the amusement park in the 1960s, loose dirt was pushed over the side of the mountain without being properly compacted. It must now be peeled back to reveal the original contour and compacted as it is put back. Portions of the slope, especially at the top, will be permanently recontoured at a gentler grade that mirrors the original mountainside, Hintz said.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver originally objected to the stabilization plan and demanded an alternative design, but he did not get the engineering specifications done in time to go out to bid. Shiver said he is simply pleased work is getting underway.

“I am extremely happy,” Shiver said after the contract was awarded.

The total project, including engineering, will cost $1.47 million. Federal and state taxpayers will foot most of the bill. Maggie Valley taxpayers will contribute $25,000, and Ghost Town has pledged to contribute $25,000 as well.

Ghost Town has been in bankruptcy the past 18 months. Time is running out for the amusement park, which is being threatened with both foreclosure and liquidation. But Shiver remains hopeful a loan will come through allowing the park’s principal owner to regain title.

Meanwhile, Ray and Cookie Dye are tired of looking at a mud-filled pond that was buried when the slide moved across their yard. They want the pond dug out and their landscaping repaired, but it’s not clear who is accountable.

“We can’t prove it is [Ghost Town’s] fault,” Cookie Dye said.

Town Manager Tim Barth said town crews would try to dig out their pond for them.

The clock is ticking for stabilization work on a landslide in Maggie Valley to get underway or a federal grant to pay for the work will be lost.

A $1.3 million grant to recontour the precarious mountainside near Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park was secured months ago from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. But developing engineering plans, securing environmental permits and navigating the various state and federal agencies overseeing pieces of the work has taken months. The Emergency Watershed program has now granted a third — and final — extension for the stabilization work and set a deadline of Oct. 16.

“We need to be under construction by then,” said Town Manager Tim Barth. “They indicated this would be the last extension.”

The town is ready to go out to bid on the stabilization work, but Ghost Town does not like the design and instead has suggested an alternate plan. Engineering for the alternate plan is not yet finished, however.

Barth said the town cannot wait beyond Aug. 22 to go out to bid, or it will jeopardize getting construction underway by mid-October and in turn jeopardize the grant.

Without the grant, there is no source of money Barth knows of to stabilize the mountain. The town can’t afford the work, and the county has said it won’t put up money to fix a landslide on private property for fear of setting a bad precedent. Ghost Town, meanwhile, has been in bankruptcy for a year and a half and its ability to pay for the work is unclear.

The engineering firm, Bunnell-Lammons, has been waiting on some basic schematics from Ghost Town for several weeks in order to draw up a detailed engineering design for the alternate design. It will take two months for the project to be bid out, have a contractor selected, and for work to get underway.

“That’s why we are saying Ghost Town needs to really get it to them quickly,” Barth said.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said that there is “no problem” meeting the deadline to go out to bid. Ghost Town is delivering schematics on the alternate plan to the engineering firm this week. Shiver blames the town for plowing ahead with a plan that was “unacceptable” to Ghost Town.

“They composed the plan without any input from any property owners,” Shiver said. “If Mr. Barth would have engaged Ghost Town in the repair planning, we would already be under construction. I am frustrated that we are even put in this position by the city.”

The emergency federal grant requires support of the property owner. But Shiver said he would not agree to the first plan that was developed.

“Absolutely not,” Shiver said. Shiver said he told town officials so at the beginning of the process.

“He wasted two months worth of time. Why I have no idea why,” Shiver said. “The [engineering firm] was directed to come up with the plan absent any input from us.”

If the issue of dueling plans isn’t solved, it is unclear whether the town can compel Ghost Town to agree to the stabilization work. A state statute does allow towns to intervene if there is a threat to public safety.

“A city shall have authority to summarily remove, abate, or remedy everything in the city limits, or within one mile thereof, that is dangerous or prejudicial to the public health or public safety,” according to G.S. 160A-193.

The slide qualifies as a threat to public safety for the dozens of people living below the mountainside who would be in the path of another slide, according to N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten, who has assessed the destabilized mountainside.

“In my professional judgment, unstable slopes remain in the vicinity of the slope failure, and these unstable slopes present an imminent threat to public safety,” Wooten wrote in a letter to the Town of Maggie Valley following the slide.

Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said the statute is most commonly used to force property owners to clean up junk cars, keep their lawns mowed or seal off old swimming pools.

But, “It is a fairly broadly written statute,” said Hibbard. Typically, the town would get a court order giving it permission to take charge of the public safety threat.

If the statute was used, the work could be billed to the property owner, in this case, Ghost Town. Although Ghost Town is in bankruptcy, the work carried out under the statute would have priority status, carrying the same weight as back property taxes, and would be the first thing to get paid off if the amusement park is either sold or liquidated.

Shiver said there are flaws in the original plan proffered by the town. For a start, it was unclear if there was enough grant money to cover the cost of the stabilization.

“There were too many variables in that plan. It had an open-ended checkbook,” Shiver said.

In addition, the original plan would claim a small flat area tucked into the side of the mountain that Shiver says is critical to the amusement park’s future plans. As the only level spot on an otherwise extremely steep slope, it’s one of the few places Ghost Town could add attractions in the future.

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