When bulldozers began demolishing trees on a hillside overlooking Waynesville’s main commercial thoroughfare this summer, Byron Hickox was bombarded by a flood of inquiries from suddenly civic-minded citizens.
The highly visible slope along Russ Avenue was denuded in a matter of weeks, followed by a steady parade of dump trucks carting off soil.
“I was getting five calls a day,” said Hickox, who works in the Waynesville town planning office.
Some wanted to know what in tarnation was happening to the mountainside along the town’s most well-traveled corridor. The clear-cut is even visible from the Laurel Ridge Golf Course two miles away, pointed out Chuck Worrell, a local business owner and golfer.
“It is going to be such an eyesore,” Worrell said.
Others were simply curious what was afoot.
“People wanted to know what was going in there, and the answer was nothing,” Hickox said.
Not a Taco Bell, not a Chick-fil-A, and definitely not a Cracker Barrel. The dozers weren’t clearing the way for anything in particular. It turns out the goal of the earth-moving venture was the earth-moving itself. The soil was mined to feed a federal clean-up of contamination at a former apple orchard in Haywood County. Arsenic-laced pesticides had polluted the soil there over the decades, but it was discovered only after the land was turned into a housing development.
The Barbers Orchard site landed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, triggering a $15 million federal clean-up, according to the EPA.
The massive operation called for digging up the top foot of soil from 88 acres, trucking it off and hauling in clean dirt to replace it with — more than 100,000 cubic yards of dirt in all.
Caroline-A-Contracting, run by Burton and Caroline Edwards of Maggie Valley, landed a $3 million contract to provide all that dirt and began looking for places to get it from. The 3.5-acre site on Russ Avenue across from Kmart — a stone’s throw from the highway and a straight-shot to Barbers Orchard — was a prime candidate.
“We purchased it mainly for the dirt,” Caroline Edwards said of the site on Russ Avenue. “We really don’t have any plans.”
The hope, of course, is that the previously forested and steep hillside is now more attractive to a potential developer looking for a visible lot on the town’s prime commercial corridor.
The site is still steep, but it has the making of a switchback driveway leading to a modest flat spot carved into the hillside about half-way up — hopefully making it marketable. So far, there are no takers, but grading only recently wrapped up.
“We are open to whatever,” Caroline Edwards said.
Selling dirt for the Superfund clean-up subsidized the cost of buying, clearing and grading the site, but fell short of bankrolling it entirely.
“By no means did we sell enough dirt to pay for it,” Caroline Edwards said of the property.
According to county property records, the site was purchased for $225,000.
The Russ Avenue property wasn’t the only one — not even the main one — used as a source for clean soil. A much larger digging operation in Maggie Valley supplied most of the clean soil, on a site owned by Burton Edward’s father, Kyle Edwards.
That site was a major nuisance to Chuck Worrell, the owner of High Country Furniture on Dellwood Road, which is located near the soil mining operation. The equipment was noisy, mud ran down the road, trucks tore up the road, and dust blew everywhere, Worrell said.
“I can’t even open the windows because the dust comes through there,” Worrell said.
Both sites were under the erosion control jurisdiction of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Wayne Watkins, a state erosion control officer based in Asheville, was assigned to monitor the work. He ended up with his fair share of calls from the public as well.
“Anytime people start cutting trees, the general public has a varying degree of sensitivity to that. Some see it as foul play and others don’t understand it is a work in progress,” Watkins said.
On a few occasions, Watkins had to ask the Edwards to fix erosion control measures, but they “responded appropriately,” Watkins said. Watkins required them to put in additional silt fences and beef up their groundcover of the bare soil in places. The Maggie Valley dirt-mining site even experienced at small slide that had to be stabilized, Watkins said.
The disembodied voice crackled through the walkie-talkie: “I’ve got someone who wants to buy two lots, cash deal.”
“Sell ‘em,” L.C. Jones urged, seemingly to himself, but his response included Michelle Masta, a passenger in the backseat of his big, eggshell-colored Ford King Ranch 4X4. The radio was tuned to the NASCAR station; the volume turned off. No one in the truck was interested in listening to races on this day, not with land to sell and money to make. Masta, dressed in French jeans and heels, serves as Jones’ right-hand woman on the development, The Ridges. The development is better known as Wildflower, the Macon County subdivision’s original name. The Ridges is made up of about 500 acres of Wildflower’s original 2,200; just fewer than 100 lots were being offered through this one-day extravaganza last Saturday (Oct. 1).
Masta, who lives most of the time in Atlanta, dreams one day of permanently moving to this region with her daughter and, perhaps, gardening organically and caretaking hives of honeybees. Masta won’t buy land in this high-elevation development for that future homestead, however. She’s got a piece of nice bottomland in mind, down in one of the valleys far below.
Jones was casually attired in Levi jeans and tennis shoes. The Cullowhee native doesn’t happily sport a suit and tie, not even at an event such as this. Jones doesn’t look or talk much like a land developer. In fact, the paving company owner comes across as a man who would be perfectly comfortable operating a backhoe.
On this project, however, Jones isn’t the backhoe operator — he’s the boss, along with a couple of investors out of Atlanta. The Ridges marks Jones’ second housing development in a year in Macon County. Other developers in Western North Carolina and across the nation have seen business grind to a halt because of the crippled housing market. Jones, owner of Black Bear Paving in Franklin, has instead discovered seemingly endless financial opportunities.
The walkie-talkie crackled. Sam Pinner of Southland Marketing & Development, based in Knoxville, Tenn., was on the other end. Jones hired the former University of Tennessee football player turned time-share seller turned real-estate developer turned real-estate marketer to oversee the sales event.
Pinner has 60 to 65 sales reps spread across the 500 or so acres of The Ridges.
Jones and his investors recently purchased the development for a cool $1 million, an amount they anticipate recouping easily. BB&T was eager to get the property off its books after foreclosing on the former developer of Wildflower after that company failed to make payments. BB&T was owed $1.9 million on the property when the bank foreclosed.
“Just say, ‘Yes, that’s a deal,’” Pinner instructed the sales rep via the walkie-talkie. Like Jones, Pinner needed to hear nothing more than the word “cash” to welcome the buyer to a seat at the table.
Jones’ plan is to generate “life” into the subdivision by selling lots that were previously priced at highs of $100,000 to $300,000 for $14,000 to $30,000. Higher-priced lots were available, too, but even they weren’t priced anywhere near those heyday numbers of the real-estate boom, when scenes like the one that took place in The Ridges last weekend were commonplace.
Jones slashed the prices in The Ridges with one purpose in mind: to sell as many lots as possible, as quickly as possible. He and his investors anticipate developing more lots in the subdivision. They’ll sell those at higher prices, but the asking price on these is what the depressed market will bear, Jones said.
Jones believes he can command higher prices later if he can convince people that The Ridges is a viable, happening development with an on-site, caring developer. This is the first step in his many-stepped plan for The Ridges, and for other abandoned developments in WNC that he might take on. Jones is currently checking out another development in the Asheville area. He is a man who envisions dollar signs where others see vast money pits.
Jones and his investors can take their pick: the region’s landscape is littered with these tombstones of the once prosperous, or preposterous, WNC real-estate scene.
The selling in The Ridges started just after 9 a.m. The first lot sold in two minutes. Eight lots had sold in 10 minutes, nine lots in 12 minutes, 12 lots in 20 minutes, 21 lots in an hour. Thirty-one lots were sold by 11 a.m. A prior advertising blitz targeting Florida, Georgia, Alabama and other states paid off. Jones was having a very good day; indeed, by day’s end he’d unloaded 43 lots — 18 of them cash payments.
Wildflower was conceived and launched during the height of the housing boom. Riding the crest of the towering Cowee mountain range on the Macon-Jackson county lines, the development boasts truly spectacular views from its vantage point of more than 3,600 feet.
Turkeys and whitetail deer are everyday sightings, red-tailed hawks soar over the ridges to survey the valleys below. There are walking trails, a fancy clubhouse with a pool and small fitness center, water and sewer already in place at the house sites. There are even some lots with foundations on them, abandoned unfinished as previous owners’ dreams crumbled in the face of financial realities.
The previous developer, Ultima Carolina in Atlanta, sold more than 160 lots in Wildflower before the company went belly up. The largely out-of-state buyers were primarily looking to “flip” the properties they bought, selling for higher prices than they paid.
Wildflower’s promising beginning foundered on an out-of-control, plummeting market and a hastily designed, poorly executed development — at least in parts of Wildflower. How much, exactly, of the development is ill-built sparks heated debate in Macon County.
The very name Wildflower, for those weary of WNC’s historic abusive cycles of land speculation at the expense of public safety and environmental stewardship, has served in recent years as the region’s worst-case, best-known example. What’s unarguable is that a few years ago there was a landslide in Wildflower. It was about one-half acre in size. Today that landslide serves as an illustrative example of what happens when roads are cut in defiance of a mountain’s grain.
The culprit road was built during dry weather. Then wetter weather came, those snows and cold rains that distinguish winters in these southern mountains. Freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, with temperatures climbing from single-digit numbers into the 60s and 70s, only to drop back to single digits, over and over again.
So-called “wet” springs soon bubbled where the road overlaid. The springs most likely triggered that massive flow of mud and debris. The landslide raised fears — some say the inevitability — that a developer who could build one road like that might well have cut all of Wildflower’s many roads with a similar lack of respect for the mountains. If that’s true, anybody building here, and those living below, are at risk.
Macon County knows those dangers better than most mountain communities. In September 2004, a naturally occurring landslide originating in the Fishhawk mountains buried a small residential community below. Five people died in Peeks Creek, a tragedy of such proportions that state legislators, in response, funded a project to map these mountains, once and for all, for landslide potential.
Republican legislators, taking control of the state Senate and House last November for the first time in more than a century, have eliminated funding for more maps, with only Macon, Henderson, Buncombe and Watauga completed. North Carolina leaders were responding to real estate agents, builders, surveyors and laborers who called foul, plus a state that was facing huge economic shortfalls. Working men and women said the landslide hazard maps, coupled with the recession, hindered their abilities to make livings, unnecessarily scaring people out of buying real estate here.
Wildflower, however, was mapped for its landslide risk before the state halted the project. Red, the universal signal for stop/danger, colors the steep mountain ranges where Wildflower was built and The Ridges has since emerged.
Map opponents say state geologists greatly exaggerated the dangers of building in areas such as this.
Only time, as it’s said, will tell.
Add over-inflated land prices, under-funded buyers and loosely regulated loaning institutions to the development’s problems. These semi-natural and manmade elements combined into a toxic brew, and Wildflower, literally and metaphorically, wilted and died.
More than half those who bought the original lots in Wildflower went into foreclosure. Some because of an inability to make payments on their lots; others who found themselves upside down on a mortgage, owing more than the lot was worth and opting to let banks take over.
A local financial institution, Macon Bank, filed two civil suits claiming that it had been duped into making questionable loans in excess of $3.5 million to people buying some of those lots.
Macon Bank sued Beverly-Hanks Mortgage Services of Asheville and two of its brokers for, among other allegations, financial wrongdoing, defying bank instructions and setting up an interest cash-back scheme for borrowers. Additionally, the bank sued the lawyer handling property closings at Wildflower, the lawyer’s title guaranty company and five property owners. The lawsuits are wending through Macon County’s court system.
Allan Burkett and Sandra Wilkinson of Newnan, Ga., aren’t aware of The Ridges’ past history; it’s not clear they’d care if they were. They had just agreed to buy lot 142 for $19,900. Wilkinson sported a medallion on her neck that indicated they’d made the purchase.
The pair’s sales rep, Dusten Tipton of Knoxville, Tenn., had whisked them back into the clubhouse where the deals were being finalized. Burkett and Wilkinson seemed weary, a bit overwhelmed by the engineered giddy atmosphere of the sales event. Burkett was wearing a poorly fitted winter coat he’d bought locally the night before, shocked into the purchase by a sudden drop in temperatures from the 80s to the 40s as the first cold-front of autumn moved through the region.
After plunking the requisite 20 percent down that closed the lot deal, Burkett and Wilkinson were fed barbecue sandwiches and handed endless cups of sweet iced tea. They were told they could take a helicopter ride to view their new property. Wilkinson got to keep the medallion, a prize to take home as a reminder of the couple’s mountain dream.
“This is just like going to the county fair for the first time,” Wilkinson said.
“It’s exhilarating,” Burkett added.
An informal survey of the people buying the lots — most, if not all, were from Southeast states other than North Carolina — seemed to prove a point that Jones and Masta were eager to make. The days of “flipping” properties seem gone. The buyers are predominantly people who want to build houses in Macon County and live in the area either on a seasonal basis or after retirement.
At Diamond Falls Estates, the other development in Macon County under Jones and Masta’s management, 64 lots closed out of 80 being marketed on a one-day sales event last year.
“We already have 12 new houses being built now,” Masta said of Diamond Falls. “And that’s creating jobs in the area for local builders and contractors. Those weren’t speculator people who wanted to flip it in two months. Those were real people wanting to build real houses.”
It also shows that there is still a demand for mountain real estate when the price is right — a price that is far lower than days gone by.
Wilkinson and Burkett hope to build in a year or two. They bought for the view, to get a site ready-made with an existing foundation, and because they felt they’d gotten a great deal — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a not-to-be-missed chance to own a little piece of WNC.
The one-day land rush on cheap lots in The Ridges might be a sign of the times: not a real estate turn around per se, but an eagerness by banks to off-load foreclosed property, even if it means taking a loss.
“I think this is the beginning of a new trend,” said Bob Holt, real estate instructor for Southwestern Community College in Franklin and Sylva. “I think the banks are deciding, ‘I would rather take less and be done with it than hang on another year or two or three or four. To get rid of these they are going to get rid of them at rock bottom prices.’”
People buying the failed developments can in turn sell lots so cheaply that prospective lot buyers — who have otherwise proved elusive in the mountains lately — come knocking once more, witnessed by the droves of buyers lured by the fire sale at The Ridges in Macon County last weekend.
“I think we probably will see more of the fire sales,” Holt said. “I think we have waited and waited and waited and waited, and some people are saying it has got to have bottomed out now so it is going to turn around.”
Holt doesn’t think it has, however.
Some banks are attempting to sell the lots themselves, making a foray into the real estate business rather than off-load the property to a middle man. In Cashiers this spring, the bank that had foreclosed on one development orchestrated a one-day fire sale of lots. At Balsam Mountain Preserve, the lender who foreclosed on the property has stepped in as the property manager attempting to see the development through.
Peggy Patterson, who has sold real estate in Macon County for four decades, doesn’t see a return of the market at this juncture.
“I don’t think it is rebounding at all,” Patterson said. “If anything, it seems a little worse.”
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.”
A new group has formed to counteract a recent landslide of opposition to steep-slope regulations in Macon County.
“We realized that there are a lot of people out there who don’t go to these meetings — and I count myself among them — and who aren’t real vocal, but who have strong feelings about these issues,” Kathy Tinsley, spokeswoman for MaconSense.org, said Tuesday.
The new organization has created a website with information about the issue, and launched a petition to encourage Macon County residents to express support for a steep-slope ordinance.
Tinsley said six to eight people organized MaconSense.org. She expects more in the county to join as word gets out. Tinsley’s brother is Al Slagle, a planning board member. Slagle chaired the steep slope subcommittee tasked by commissioners to write a recommendations for an ordinance, a project it spent two years on.
A news release this week issued by MaconSense.org noted the group also plans to organize petition drives, plan public events and run public-service advertisements.
The new group is not limiting itself to the slope development issue, according to Tinsley. It hopes to bring together citizens “of all walks of life and political persuasions to advocate for common sense solutions to important issues facing the county,” the news release stated.
“Regular people have been pushed out of the process by all the heated rhetoric,” Tinsley said. “That’s a shame. We need our elected officials to move past partisan bickering and get back to serving the public interest. The only way that is going to happen is if citizens feel like they have a say in the direction of our county.”
MaconSense.org has a steep slope of its own to overcome the momentum built already by opponents of planning regulation. At the website www.propertyownersofamerica.org, Macon County residents are warned they could “lose the right to build on your own land” if regulations were passed; and that such regulations would add at least $8,000 to the cost of building.
“The Macon County Planning Board recently voted to table the slope ordinance. Many have asked how the planning board’s decision impacts our campaign to build public support for the ordinance? The simple answer is — it doesn’t. The problem still exists and the solution is still the same. Our task is to send a clear message that the people of Macon County support a slope ordinance. Period. That doesn’t change no matter what political procedures are employed.”
According to MaconSense.org, a slope ordinance would benefit the county by:
• Protecting property rights.
• Promoting economic development.
• Supporting local business.
• Reducing the risk of catastrophe.
• Preserving our valuable resources.
Source: MaconSense.org website.
“Finishing the conversation” has become something of a catchphrase lately in Macon County. It’s a really diplomatic way of saying that while the planning board should keep plugging away at construction guidelines, there’s no guarantee the building regulations they develop will do anything more than sit on a shelf and gather dust.
County Planner Derek Roland created a new twist to the now-well worn phrase, however, when asked whether he believes his beleaguered planning board can accomplish anything at all.
“This gives us a new starting point to continue that conversation,” Roland said in a recent interview.
After more than two years of developing a steep slope ordinance, the Macon County planning board decided to table the work. It salvaged a few of the more salient building rules in a set of construction guidelines, such as hillside excavation and compaction of fill dirt.
County commissioners last week approved the planning board’s change of course.
Before commissioners made their decision, however, Planning Board Member Lamar Sprinkle, a local surveyor, took advantage of the county commissioner’s public session to lob a few grenades at those he disagrees with on the planning board.
He described them as “extreme ideologists … who have their own agenda they want to put forward.”
“The planning board is irreconcilably divided at this time,” Sprinkle said, adding that in his opinion, commissioners should shoot down any attempt by the planning board to work on general construction guidelines.
“It would be really difficult for us to sit down and come up with standards for the county,” Sprinkle said.
Additionally, Sprinkle told commissioners, developing standards such as these should be the work of professionals in the construction field and not be left to amateurs on the planning board lacking the necessary expertise.
Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland has described the 13-member board as a hung jury unable to reach consensus on a possible steep-slope ordinance. Penland hopes by steering clear of the more controversial parts of a steep-slope ordinance — the very name, the state landslide maps that were used as a baseline, the steepness of slopes triggering regulations, whether Wildflower subdivision’s roads are being unfairly targeted as bad just because a couple fell off the mountain — he can steer the planning board through the more basic construction guidelines.
Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, liaison to the planning board and creator of that popular phrase, “finishing the conversation,” told his fellow commissioners he supported altering the group’s direction.
“We need to allow them to finish the job,” Kuppers said in a new twist on the original.
Commissioner Ron Haven asked what timeframe the planning board would now be on, and Kuppers replied that he believes the board would still be able to report back to commissioners in September, as instructed.
Chairman Brian McClellan reiterated that point, saying, “We’re still looking for September recommendations.”
The planning board is set to meet again Thursday, Aug. 18, beginning at 5 p.m. in the meeting room at the county’s public health center.
Roland, asked to predict what could hang up the 13-member board this time, said he believes compaction will prove a big issue, and “that cuts and fills will certainly be something we’ll discuss.”
That, of course, pretty much covers the guts of the proposed general construction guidelines in Macon County.
• Fill material must be free of organic or other degradable materials and properly compacted before building.
• No excavated slope can be taller than 30 feet in vertical height.
• For cut slopes more than 8 feet and 30 feet in vertical height, the slopes can’t exceed 1.0 vertical to 1.5 horizontal.
• For fill slopes between 5 feet and 30 feet in vertical height, the slopes can’t exceed 1.0 vertical to 2.0 horizontal.
• A bench with a minimum width of 5 feet must be constructed at the toe of any fill slope greater than 5 feet in vertical height. Fills greater than 10 feet in vertical height must have a bench at the toe of the fill with a minimum width of 10 feet, and an additional 5 foot wide bench for each additional 5 feet in vertical height.
• The planning office can waive rules if justified by an engineer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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/.
“No one so far has explained why we need this thing,” said Paul Higdon, a contractor who oversees sewer, water and septic projects. “Other than it’s just another level of bureaucracy that private landowners have to go through.”
But Lewis Penland, the planning board’s chair, has billed the ordinance as a way to protect lives and property from slope failures.
“We’ve got to have development,” said Penland. “All I ask is that when you build something above me, it doesn’t fall down on me.”
Penland, who works as a developer and grading contractor, also backs steep slope rules as a way to level the playing field between the contractors with scruples versus the ones who cut corners and can offer cheaper rates as a result.
“The way the system is set up now, you’re punishing the people who are doing it right,” Penland said.
Higdon is no stranger to regulation, having worked as Macon County’s environmental supervisor for 10 years. But he believes the county’s erosion control and subdivision ordinances already put enough restrictions on developers even though they don’t deal directly with mountainside construction.
“My concern is in a down economy –– a construction-based economy –– it will inhibit it that much more,” Higdon said.
Higdon also fears that landslide hazard maps, developed by the North Carolina Geological Survey, will become material facts that must be disclosed during land transactions, forcing Realtors to inform potential buyers if a house or lot lies in a landslide hazard area.
Higdon thinks the maps may open the door to more litigation on the one hand or lower property values on the other.
What role the newly created landslide hazard maps should play in steep slope regulations has proved controversial. The maps were created in the wake of the Peek’s Creek landslide that killed five people in Macon County in 2005.
“We’ve got to educate people on the maps,” Penland said.
But advocates of the slope rules aren’t stopping there.
The planning board has launched an education campaign in which its members will travel to communities around the county to educate people about the proposed regulations.
Some citizens have already joined the discussion. Last month, 12 people came to a planning board meeting to voice their reservations.
Bill Vernon, a retired developer who created the Featherstone subdivision in 2002, is another critic of the proposed elements of the ordinance. He thinks the engineering fees the ordinance requires in certain cases would prohibit development.
“The big issue I see is what will it will do to construction,” Vernon said.
He disputes the planning board’s estimates that engineering fees could range from $500 to $8,000 for projects that occur on slopes of a 30 percent grade or more, estimating instead that costs could climb to $20,000 on a house.
“If you’re going to add $8,000 to the cost of a building in this economic environment, I’m against it,” Vernon said. “I’m against it if it’s $20.”
Steep slope committee member Reggie Holland is president of the Macon County Homebuilders Association. Holland doesn’t think the steep slope ordinance will hurt his trade.
“I really don’t think this is going to be so significant an expense that it would cause people not to buy here,” Holland said, adding most buyers would want their home to comply with the cut and fill and soil compaction requirements.
For Holland, who changed his mind about the regulations during a year of slope committee meetings, the ordinance speaks for itself.
“When I was first on this committee, I felt similarly to Paul and Bill, thinking we didn’t need another government program to intervene in the work we’re doing,” Holland said. “The more I investigated it and thought about some jobs in the past where there were failures, I really thought there needed to be some standards.”
Penland said the development of the actual ordinance will take some time and he doubted if the commissioners would take the issue up before the November election. Between now and then, he hopes to turn doubters into supporters through a series of community meetings.
Holland doesn’t think the sell job will be a tough one.
“I think most people who are against the ordinance –– not all of them –– are people who haven’t really read it,” Holland said.
The Macon County Planning Board will hold its next meeting at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 15, at the Pine Grove Community Center.
In April, the Macon County Board of Commissioners charged the planning board with the job of drafting an ordinance that would regulate development on steep slopes. The directive came after the planning board’s steep slope committee had spent the better part of a year creating a set of guiding principles for the ordinance.
Below are the key elements of the committee’s recommendations.
For any development on slopes over 30 percent grade:
On slopes greater than 40 percent, developer must hire an engineer or design professional to create a slope plan. An engineer is also required on slopes greater than 30 percent if they lie in high or moderate landslide hazard areas.
For development on slopes between 30 and 40 percent grade, an engineer is not required, but a site plan, showing the areas to be graded, cut and fill heights, and a drainage plan, is required.
The ordinance applies only to the portion of a tract that exceeds the slope threshold, not the entire tract.
Tony Elders didn’t realize quite how much on-the-job exercise he was in for when he was hired to oversee Jackson County’s new development regulations three years ago.
He often must lace up his boots and take off cross-country, GPS unit in hand, trekking up and down mountainsides to plot the elevation change between a ridgeline and the neighboring valley. Jackson County bans building on ridgelines, but the definition of a ridgeline requires some technical reconnaissance work.
“You have to do it on a site-by-site basis,” Elders said.
When a ridge is 2,500 feet or more in elevation and at least 400 feet higher than the nearest valley floor, then it falls under the county’s ridge law.
But it isn’t always clear what counts as the neighboring valley. Does a small holler below the ridge count? And at what point does a creek flowing off the mountain become the bona fide valley floor?
Simply determining what’s a ridge is harder than it might seem, Elders said. Each major ridge has little finger ridges leading off it. Do those count, too?
Ultimately, it’s a judgment call.
“I just try to see how visible and how prominent and how environmentally problematic that house site is going to be,” Elders said. If Elders deems it a protected ridge, the roofline of the house must be at least 20 feet below the ridgeline.
The cumbersome nature of enforcing the ridge law has made it a target of discussion by the county planning board in recent weeks, in turn renewing a more general debate over whether Jackson’s development regulations are too tough.
The ridge law was only a small part of the sweeping steep slope and subdivision ordinances passed in Jackson County three years ago, but supporters are willing to fight to keep it.
“Up on the ridgeline, especially when you cut the trees, you have something that is exposed to anyone looking in the general direction of the mountains,” said Roy Osborn, a Jackson County resident who supports the regulation.
But some see the ridge law as overreaching.
“The fact that they are revisiting it is almost an admission on their part that they overdid it,” said Ron Poore, a critic of the regulations. “Obviously we don’t want something that looked like a spaceship landed on the ridgetop. But at the same time we need reasonable regulations.”
Elders countered that it is only a discussion right now.
“No one is loosening restrictions. We are just trying to find a better way,” Elders said.
While it doesn’t take much to reignite opposing sides in the debate over Jackson’s development regulations, it’s time to revisit the ordinance to assess which parts should be refined, according to Linda Cable, the county planning director.
“After you have been enforcing an ordinance for a year, you automatically go back to review and see what the difficulties are and issues that have surfaced,” Cable said. “One of the issues that has surfaced is how to identify the protected ridges.”
But Elders has also questioned whether the building ban on ridges is wise policy. Sometimes the views and environment are worse off when someone is forced to build on the side of the mountain instead of a flat spot on a ridge, according to Elders.
“The only way to get a house site on the side is to bench it into the mountain. That requires cutting a lot of trees,” Elders said.
If too many trees are cut during construction, they have to be replanted under the county’s ordinance. But it could take decades for the trees to grow tall enough to screen a house on a steep slope, Elders said. Meanwhile, a ridge with a wide, flat spot can accommodate a house with far less excavating or tree clearing, Elders said.
Elder’s either-or scenario — either build on the ridge or gouge up the mountainside — is a fallacy, according to Myrtle Schrader, a Jackson resident and supporter of the ridge law.
“That’s not the only choice,” Schrader said.
With proper building design and site selection, homes can blend with the landscape without protruding above the ridgeline or scarring the side of a mountain, Schrader said.
Poore questioned the added engineering costs.
The ridge law was discussed at the most recent Jackson County Planning Board meeting. The planning board explored an alternative method for defining protected ridges. Elders suggested an advanced mapping program that gauges how visible a particular ridge is. That raised an equally complicated question: visible from where?
The mere fact the subject was broached prompted criticism that the county might roll back its development regulations.
“I think the concept of letting anyone build on a ridgeline is not a good idea,” said Myrtle Schrader, a Jackson resident and supporter of strong development regulations who attended the meeting. “That’s what the ordinances were about to begin with.”
Schrader does not want to see the regulations weakened. But that is not the intention, according to Elders and Cable.
“I don’t think there is any intention in relaxing any of the regulations,” Cable said. “It is just a different way of trying to determine what those ridges are that need to be protected.”
County commissioners have been taken off-guard by the discussion, however.
“I did not know this was an issue,” said Commissioner William Shelton.
Shelton said the logistical challenge of classifying protected ridges is not a reason to change the ordinance.
“I can see where there would be some technical questions but I don’t think rewriting that portion of the ordinance is a priority at this time,” Shelton said.
Shelton said there are other mechanisms to deal with gray areas that don’t have easy answers.
“It would seem like that is why we have the review board in place, to look at individual cases that deviate from the norm,” Shelton said.
For now, it seems Elders will continue getting his exercise.
Some existing lots sit squarely on a ridge, making it impossible to site a house further down the mountain and still stay within the property lines. If such a lot predates the ordinance, an exception is granted. Otherwise the lot would essentially become worthless for the owner.
But for new lots, Elders makes a site visit before the property deed is recorded. He makes sure the lot lines extend down the mountainside enough to accommodate a house site well below the ridgeline.
The ridge law is the only part of the ordinance that Elders has seen problems with. Of course, there haven’t been many developers launching new subdivisions lately. Since passage of the regulations three years ago, only two developers have mapped out new subdivisions under the guidelines.
“It was not as bad as they thought. It just requires more careful planning,” Elders said. “Both of them are better developments because of it.”
Despite the paltry number of new subdivisions in three years, Elders doesn’t think the regulations deterred growth.
“It is hard to say because the economy tanked coinciding with our ordinance,” Elders said.
But Poore disagreed. He says the regulations — and more specifically, the moratorium on new subdivisions while the regulations were being written — caused Jackson’s real estate and construction industry to collapse earlier than the rest of the region.
“They basically put a stop to construction,” said Poore, who plans to run for county commissioner chairman as an unaffiliated candidate in the fall.
The next planning board meeting is Thursday, April 8, at 6 p.m. on the second floor of the Jackson County administration building.