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Haywood wants to know: where are the landslide risks?

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.

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