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Wednesday, 14 January 2009 14:35

Searching for clarity after muddy disaster

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It was around 1:30 a.m. on an exceptionally rainy Wednesday that Bruce and Lorraine Donin’s world came crashing down.

One minute, the senior couple from Florida was enjoying a peaceful night listening to the creek rush past their three-story home. The next, they were crawling their way through a twisting, tumbling nightmare, desperately trying to escape the mudslide that turned their house into a pile of rubble. The Donins ended up on their roof, which was sitting on the ground — miraculously unscathed, and badly shaken.

The 300-foot landslide that slammed into the Donin’s house in the Wild Acres subdivision in Maggie Valley originated from the property of their uphill neighbors, Edward and Pamela McAloon, also of Florida. The McAloon’s house was teetering on a whopping 83 percent slope — one that was deemed dangerous three different times before the house was built.

The mudslide that destroyed the Donin residence has sparked a renewed debate over building in the mountains and just whose to blame when something goes wrong.

In the Donin’s case, pinning a culprit isn’t easy. Though the county, private engineers and the McAloons themselves were all aware of the potential instability of the McAloon property, a lack of regulations in place at the time meant no one had to do anything about it.

And unless that changes, say slope ordinance advocates, there will likely be more destructive landslides in the future.

“As there’s an increase in the amount of development on steep and unstable slopes, I think we’ll see an increase in the number of similar incidents,” said Bill Eaker, environmental services manager for the Land of Sky Regional Council.

 

Who’s to blame?

County documents show the McAloons apparently ignored warnings that their property posed a potential risk for a landslide.

When the McAloons embarked on building a second-home in Wild Acres, they didn’t have much to work with. The remarkably steep lot was barely more than half an acre, leaving little room for shoehorning a house pad on the property.

They sought advice from private engineers at Alpha Environmental Sciences, who were the first to issue a warning about the stability of the site in July of 2005. The engineers visited the site specifically to evaluate the stability of its slopes. They identified two slopes that posed a risk. “This area will most likely continue to erode until the slope gives way and slides,” the engineers said of the first. Of the second — “due to the steep grade of the slope, there is potential for a slide.”

The same concerns were expressed when county officials inspected the property in October 2006 for erosion control compliance, a standard part of the construction process.

“We have concerns about the slope just past your home. It appears to be exhibiting signs of failure. Please have your plan designer, or another qualified person, have a look at it,” wrote erosion and sedimentation control inspector Tim Surrett.

But months later, there had been no move to remediate the unstable slopes. The county’s final erosion inspection in January of 2007 included a statement recommending that the owners seek professional help assessing the long-term stability of the slope.

While the county clearly had concerns over the hillside’s stability, Haywood’s slope ordinance had not yet been passed, and county officials couldn’t force the property owners to do anything.

“Our people were sitting there saying ... we think you’ve got an awfully steep slope, and that you need somebody to look at it,” recalls Mark Pruett, the county’s director of erosion and sediment control.

David Wijewickrama, a Waynesville lawyer retained by the Donins, says the McAloons are to blame for ignoring the repeated warnings.

“Even though they’d been warned, they had not followed the recommendations,” he said. “So what I see there are potential charges of negligence, such as negligent infliction of emotional distress. There are a variety of allegations that we can make against them.”

The McAloons could not be reached for comment.

In any case, out-of-staters from flatter terrain may not fully understand the risks of building in the mountains.

“It’s not something in their thinking that areas are prone to slides,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Mars Hill), who has advocated for a state-wide steep slope regulation in the N.C. General Assembly.

Individuals unfamiliar with mountain terrain who are building here should get help from local professionals, Eaker suggests.

“We strongly encourage folks considering buying property or building in steep slope areas to retain the services of professionals that are here in this area, that are familiar with the mountain environment and how it works, and what the limiatations are,” he said.

But just who to pick can be daunting. Eaker suggests programs like Clear Water Contractors, where contractors who have undergone training in best building practices are listed on a Web site.

Gordon Small, a former employee of Haywood Waterways and advocate for smart building in the mountains, said there should be a public database that lists the citations that contractors have received.

“Not all builders and developers are equal,” he said. “I would like to see a public list on the Internet of citations issued. Over time, you’ll have a whole lot better people doing the work.”

 

County’s hands tied

If the McAloons were buildin on their property today, they would fall under Haywood County’s slope ordinance, which gives the county teeth to address slope stability concerns — teeth the county lacked just a couple years ago. Under Haywood’s ordinance, slopes over a 35 percent grade require an engineer to certify their stability.

“We have that slope ordinance in place now, which could very well have prevented the problem that recently happened,” said Pruett.

People have come forward since the adoption of the ordinance with requests to build on slopes as steep as that on the McAloon property, and now the county can make them comply with additional stability measures.

“We’ve not turned them down, but we’ve required them to submit a plan or do something else to modify the slope,” said Mark Shumpert, the county’s engineer. If a private engeineer signs off on the slope, the county generally agrees.

“For the most part, if the engineer signs off, we’re not going to argue with them — just make sure they submitted the information we need,” Shumpert said.

Shumpert said no slopes built on since the adoption of the ordinance have failed.

In theory, the hoops put in place by Haywood County’s slope ordinance might deter individuals from building homes on steep slopes. But if people are determined enough and have the cash, there’s still nothing to stop them.

“You can drive around parts of the county and realize there’s not really anywhere that can’t be built on — it comes down to financing,” said Shumpert. “A structural engineer can do you up a whopper of a home plan that costs more than the house itself.”

Though Haywood County’s slope ordinance still allows for steep slope development, it’s much more regulation than some counties have put in place. Neither Macon nor Swain counties have a slope ordinance.

 

The state’s role

A bill introduced by Rep. Rapp in the General Assembly would put in place a statewide steep slope ordinance modeled after Haywood’s. The bill, dubbed the Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act, stalled after meeting stiff opposition from the North Carolina Homebuilders Association and the North Carolina Realtors, and wasn’t brought up in the most recent General Assembly session. Rapp says the Maggie Valley landslide has reinforced the need for statewide regulations.

“What has happened with the Maggie Valley situation, is it just helps reinforce the need for this,” he said. “I don’t think we can be dismissive anymore of the dangers that are involved by continuing to ignore this issue.”

Rapp says a statewide ordinance would provide a method of protecting mountain slopes, especially in counties that lack any such regulation.

“I think we have a checkerboard pattern of ordinances up and down the ridges. Some communities have standards that go way beyond what’s called for, but other counties have absolutely nothing,” he said.

The bill would give counties with no regulations a chance to adopt an ordinance of their own, but if they didn’t the state would impose minimum criteria. Rapp said he had already been planning to reintroduce his bill prior to the landslide in Maggie Valley.

“I had been talking with different local groups to see what kind of support I might generate as well as some of the legislators who had been resistant to the original bill, to see what they found most objectionable and how we can make it a little more palatable,” he said.

Rapp says the two powerful lobbying forces — the homebuilders and Realtors — who opposed the bill took issue with the requirement that an engineer be hired if slopes exceeded a certain threshold. He argues that the additional cost is well worth it to prevent a total loss like that suffered by the Donins.

“These are very expensive homes being built on these slopes, by most standards, and if there is an additional cost of $1,200 or $1,400 that goes into having an engineer study and soil samples that may be required, that is well worth the lives and property that would be saved,” he said.

But Alan Best, president of the Haywood County Homebuilders Association, says his group has additional concerns.

“Why is the rest of the state mandating what we are regionally addressing? How does Raleigh or those other counties or other representatives understand what’s happening in WNC?” he said. “Is it something we need statewide when it’s something unique to Western North Carolina?”

However, many counties aren’t addressing it on their own, and the bill would force them to step up to the plate.

Another state initiative targeting landslides is the Landslide Hazard Mapping Program. The program, started after the 2004 hurricanes, aims to map potential landslize hazard zones as a tool for developers. But the program is moving at a snail’s pace because the funding is slow to materialize.

Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the North Carolina Geological Survey, said the landslide maps would have pinpointed the risk of the area where the Maggie Valley landslide occurred.

“Our maps would have picked up that spot as an area where debris flows could potentially go,” said Wooten.

The state program has recently secured more funding, which will allow it to continue mapping mountain counties. Next on the list is Jackson County, followed by Haywood County in 2010. Macon County has already been completed.

 

Slides without devastation

In the event of any landslide, there’s question of whether anything really could have prevented it. After all, landslides have been a naturally occurring geological phenomenon in the mountains long before humans set foot here.

“These mountains have shallow soils and rocks close to the surface. You get enough rain and saturate the soil to the point where it liquefies, and you’re always going to get some landslides,” said Shumpert.

But most experts agree that slope construction exacerbates the problem. Ground that has been disturbed can’t hold as much water, said Wooten, and therefore increases the chance that it will liquefy and become a landslide.

“No, you won’t ever stop all of them, but you can limit them, and you can minimize how bad they’ll be,” Shumpert said.

How?

“With enough planning and engineering, quality construction, and building on slopes that aren’t so crazy high and steep,” he said. “But it depends how much money you put into it, and how risky the area is where you’re building on a slope.”

The mountain where the Donin landslide occurred may qualify as a risky area. A landslide in the same subdivision killed a woman in 2003. And in the 24-hour period that the Donin slide occurred, another landslide on the back of the same mountain in the Villages of Plott Creek subdivision sent large volumes of mud into Plott Creek, turning the water into mud for a couple of miles.

“There’s been a lot of activity in the mountain right there,” said Pruett.

But careful building practices and slope regulations could prevent that activity from wreaking havoc, added Rapp.

“We certainly can’t control natural events, but we can have an impact on their effects,” Rapp said.

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