Safeguards in place, but cracks remainWritten by Becky Johnson
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.
One legislator’s fight for safety
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.”