Landslide repair down to the wire as competing plans play out

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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