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Macon fly-over shows what’s at stake

There’s no way to prevent landslides in the mountains, but there is a way to make their impact on humans more predictable.

That’s the message that N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten and the staff of the North Carolina Geological Survey have impressed on the counties in which they have compiled landslide hazard maps. But while the landslide maps offer a vast amount of useful information for county planning offices and elected leaders, they don’t come with any regulatory directives.

That’s why two nonprofits, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association and South Wings, organized a fly-over of Macon County’s most significant landslides last week.

“You forget there are people who live below who can be killed,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of LTWA. “It’s easy to get caught up in the language of the law rather than what’s really at stake — which is public safety.”

Close on the heels of a headline-grabbing landslide in Maggie Valley, the timing for the trip couldn’t have been better.

Macon County is currently at a crucial point in the process of developing a steep slope ordinance that would set firm guidelines for where and how developers can build on mountainsides.

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Macon Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland –– a grating contractor and a developer by trade –– is worried that the fallout from landslides will result in a blanket state-level solution if counties don’t find their own answers.

“Everybody talks about property rights but when your mountain falls on me, that’s a problem,” Penland said. “If we don’t handle this issue then the state will, and I’d prefer we do it ourselves.”

Penland said he was disappointed that none of the county commissioners participated in the fly-over and he worries they won’t support a strong enough ordinance.

“I just hope that Macon County has wise enough commissioners to realize that they represent 35,000 people and not make the mistake Haywood County made,” Penland said. “The staff needs a little support. They’ve been great. It’s time to take the leash off and let the dogs hunt.”

A steep slope committee has spent the past year drafting proposed regulations and will submit its recommendations to the planning board on Thursday, Feb. 18. The ordinance requires developers and graders to hire a certified engineer when building on slopes that exceed a certain threshold. Determining that threshold has been a matter of debate for the committee, however.

Under the final recommendation, the full weight of the ordinance will apply on slopes exceeding a 40 percent grade, according to the committee’s chair, Al Slagle. But the ordinance also creates a middle ground on slopes between 30 and 40 percent. In those cases, the county would have discretion to make a developer comply with various aspects of the ordinance. The landslide hazard maps will weigh heavily in the decision by county planners on how to treat developers falling in that middle range.

Jackson and Haywood counties already have steep slope guidelines. Jackson County’s steep slope ordinance applies on any slope above 30 percent grade and Haywood’s on slopes above 35 percent. Swain County has no steep slope ordinance.

One of the issues that has arisen with respect to the Maggie Valley and Wildflower slides is the financial burden placed on counties when slides originate on private property with a bankrupt owner.

Because homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover landslides, there is a real financial threat to downhill property owners. Only strong policy guidelines can offer protection in those instances, by imposing security bonds or penalties. That’s a part of the discussion Sanders wanted the stakeholders to understand by actually seeing the proximity of homes to the path of recent slides.

“People think we’re trying to over-regulate or step into people’s lives, but it’s really about protection,” Sanders said. “Those people will likely end up in financial ruin and there needs to be something in place to protect them.”

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