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Jackson opts to pay for landslide mapping

fr jaxlandslideJackson became the first North Carolina county to take landslide mapping into its own hands when the board of commissioners voted unanimously to fund the $143,000 project last week.

“It’s something that I think is needed,” Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said at a work session before the vote. 

Four counties in the state got their landslide mapping done between 2005 and 2011, back when the state was funding the effort. After the Legislature cut funding, some of the mountain counties made efforts to continue the work. In Haywood County, a group of environmental organizations pooled money to pay for the project, and in Jackson grant funding paid to map a small portion of the county, the Wayehutta Creek watershed. 

Those post-state funding projects were completed by Appalachian Landslide Consultants, a company formed by two geologists — Jennifer Bauer and Stephen Fuemmeler — who had previously worked on the state-funded mapping. 

Finishing the mapping in Jackson County is expected to take one-and-a-half years, so the price tag will be split between two fiscal years. The project will involve lots of time on the computer working with various geographic and elevation models, field verification of landslide-prone areas and creation of maps showing where landslides would be likely to start and where the debris would likely flow. The contract also stipulates ALC’s involvement in educational outreach efforts, stakeholder meetings and creation of a users guide and educational brochure. 

The issue of landslide mapping surfaced during a planning board meeting earlier this month as members considered the much-debated steep slope ordinance, which will go to a final public hearing Sept. 22 before commissioners vote on it. One of the most significant changes to the proposed revised ordinance is a shift in when the rules kick in. Now a slope must have a 35 percent grade, rather than a 30 percent, for the rules to apply.

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“My concern in these accountings is that we don’t know that 35 percent is the right number for Jackson County,” said planning board member Tom Rodgers in the last meeting of his term. “A (landslide) study has not been completed for all of Jackson County. I remain a strong advocate for doing so, so we know what the right number is.”

Slope is an important factor in determining landslide risk, but it’s not the only one. Soil type, water flow and development, for instance, can all play a part. The hope is that having a professional set of maps will help developers make better decisions about where to site future construction and give owners of existing homes a heads-up if they live somewhere that, after a heavy rainstorm, could prove dangerous. 

In the steep-sloped and rainy mountains of Western North Carolina, that’s a real fear, as proven by a 2004 landslide in the Peeks Creek area of Macon County brought on by the heavy rains of Hurricane Ivan. The disaster left three people dead and properties in the landslide’s 3,000-foot path destroyed. 

“Was it predictable? Could it have been something that could have been possibly avoided?” said McMahan. “That’s something we’ll never know.”

But by making sure residents have the best possible information in hand, he concluded, the chances of a repeat disaster should go down. 

The commissioners’ vote ensures that the maps will get done, but what happens to them after they’re complete is still up in the air. The county could post them on its website, fully endorsing the results and making them easy to find. Or it could opt to contract to host them elsewhere, meaning that the information will be available to anyone who needs it but won’t be explicitly advertised on the county site. Both Macon and Haywood counties have chosen the latter option, citing concern about liability issues if the maps were hosted on the county site. 

“I think this landslide information is just one more piece of information that will help a property buyer make an informed decision,” said Commissioner Vickie Greene. “Whether we adopt it (the maps) or not I don’t care as long as the information is available to the public.”

It’s something commissioners will continue to talk about, McMahan said, but the important thing is that the maps exist. 

“If anything we will contract to provide the service, provide the maps,” he said. 

Commissioners approved the contract unanimously, to be paid for out of contingency funds. The work will likely begin during the current fiscal year and continue through the 2016-17 fiscal year.

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