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Wednesday, 10 March 2010 16:12

Maggie Valley to compel Ghost Town to stabilize lingering slide threat

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Ghost Town is far from off the hook for repairing the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.

The Rich Cove slide originated from Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park more than a month ago. About 16,000 tons of material remain unstable at the site, threatening an even worse slide.

No one has said yet whether natural causes or the failure of retaining walls led to the mudslide. But that might not matter. Town officials have discovered several lines of attack for forcing the amusement park company to foot the cleanup bill.

Town Manager Tim Barth has unearthed a state law that would allow the town to step in and stabilize the site then force Ghost Town to cover all the expenses.

Another more long-term option is to pass an ordinance regulating development on steep slopes — to prevent future landslides and force property owners to clean up slides that occur. The county already has such an ordinance, but the town chose not to adopt it, so it doesn’t apply to Ghost Town, which is within town limits.

The state law that Barth cited says a town can summarily remove anything that is dangerous to public safety within one mile of time limits. Expenses would be covered by the property owner. If they aren’t paid, the town could place a lien on the property and on any other property owned by the same entity in town, except for primary residences.

Barth acknowledges that it would be difficult to get Ghost Town to pay up since it’s already mired by bankruptcy. But the town may proceed anyway.

“It may be a situation where certain actions have to be taken to stabilize that area, and maybe the town gets paid back at a later time after the property is sold,” said Barth.

It would be beneficial for anybody who owns the land to repair the slide, Barth added.

Town officials are still waiting to hear on the prospect of federal assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The USDA may be able to provide 75 percent of funding for the Rich Cove slide repair, though local sources will still need to scrape up the remaining 25 percent.

The town and county plan to meet jointly after the estimate for the cleanup and stabilization work is finalized some time this week. Both governments hope Ghost Town will cough up money for the cleanup regardless of its bankrupt status.

However, Ghost Town’s bankruptcy attorney has said the park does not have the $250,000 it needs to open for the season unless an investor is found.

Steep slope ordinance in sight?

Barth recently consulted with Haywood County on the possibility of adopting a steep slope ordinance within town limits.

Because of the potential for another slide at Rich Cove, the town would have to move fairly quickly. It could adopt the county’s slope ordinance wholesale, rather than take the time to write one of its own.

“We recognize that there’s a time factor, that we need to probably get something in place fairly soon,” said Barth. “But we want to make sure we do things the right way, and in a way that makes sense for Maggie Valley as well as the county.”

Barth said the town had not pursued an ordinance in the past because little development occurred on steep slopes within town limits.

Another limiting factor was not having enough resources to hire a full-time engineer to enforce a steep slope ordinance. If the county agrees to handle enforcement, Maggie might sign on to Haywood’s ordinance.

“That would be the easiest, quickest way to have legislation enacted,” said town planner Nathan Clark, who hopes that the slide will renew serious discussions about a steep slope ordinance in Maggie.

Such an ordinance provides several ways to force a landslide cleanup.

For example, Haywood can delay necessary permits to hold up development until the slide is stabilized. It can also fine property owners until they cooperate.

“It might start out at $5,000 or it might start out at $50, depending on the severity of the slope failure and how much noncooperation there is,” said Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.

Under the county ordinance, Shumpert has the authority to deem a slope in danger of sliding a “critical slope” and compel the property owner to stabilize it.

For now, the county has little influence over the Rich Cove cleanup. That would change, however, if Maggie passes a steep slope ordinance and the county takes over.

“It all boils down to jurisdiction,” said Shumpert.

Two landslides hit in the Maggie area in January 2009, but they were outside the town limits so the county’s slope ordinance kicked into effect.

For the first time, Haywood County was able to force a property owner to clean up a slide.

One property owner recently submitted design plans for the slide stabilization.

The other owner filed for bankruptcy, and the county is now negotiating with the bank that’s taken over the property. Haywood has not filed a lien on the property.

Shumpert said the bank has two options: it can either repair the site and sell the house on it, or it can bulldoze the home and return the area to its natural state.

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