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Haywood picks up the torch on landslide hazard mapping

A team of laid-off state geologists will soon start mapping landslide hazard zones in Haywood County after a coalition of environmental nonprofits raised money to keep the project alive.

The state two years ago axed an ongoing effort to map landslide risks in mountain counties. Haywood was supposed to be next up on the list when the mapping was terminated.


“The state had the skills in hand, and before all their staff escaped to other jobs, we wanted to see if we could take advantage of them still being in the area and get something done for Haywood County,” said Eric Romaniszyn, director of Haywood Waterways Association. “This project will have very positive impact on life and property.”

Several landslides have caused property damage in Haywood County. A few homes have been crushed by a mountain of debris from above, while others have been destabilized due to gradually shifting and creeping slopes, rendering them unlivable.

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County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a land surveyor and developer, said he personally would like to use the landslide hazard maps in his profession.

“If I am planning a subdivision, if I know where those hazard areas are I can make adjustments,” Ensley said. “To me you know exactly where to build your house on that lot. It is important information.”

The maps, which show slopes potentially prone to landslides, have been controversial in the past, however. Some in the building and real estate industry fear the maps could be a used as ammunition to stop or hamper development, or that they could hurt property values.

Ensley said the maps wouldn’t be used to stop people from building in certain areas, but could simply help developers make smarter choices about where to position a building pad or the level of engineering they need.

“I am in the development business, and I think it is important to know where those areas are. You can say, ‘These are the precautions you need to take to build your house,’” Ensley said.

Often, a house can be shifted so it’s outside the boundary of the projected landslide debris field, just like a house can be sited outside the limits of the flood zone, Ensley said.

Ensley said he realizes the maps aren’t seen as favorable by everyone, however.

“I think it would be a good tool. But there are some people who don’t think so,” Ensley said.

Exactly how the landslide maps will be put to use in Haywood County is unclear. It is also unclear who will “own” the maps.

When county commissioners were first presented with the idea two years ago of picking up where the state left off and carrying on with the landslide mapping anyway, they were publicly supportive of the project. The county commissioners did not offer to put up any money to pay for the landslide mapping, but essentially said it would be useful to have the data at the county’s disposal.

Haywood Waterways Association and its partner in the project, Southwestern Resource Conservation and Development Council, then retreated into fundraising mode to piece together money from different sources. They raised $122,000 in grants and private donations, including from Pigeon River Fund, Mountain Landscapes Initiative toolbox fund, Foundation for the Carolinas.

“There is still money to be found. We don’t have enough in place to actually have them finished,” Romaniszyn said. But it is enough to get started.

Now, however, it is unclear exactly what relationship the county wants to have with the finished maps.

“We aren’t sure where it is going to be housed, who would actually hold the data,” Romaniszyn said.

For example, will the county put the landslide hazards maps on the county web site or include it with the county land records mapping software? Will the county planning office even have a copy of the landslide maps on the shelf?

Proponents of the landslide mapping are hopeful to have that level of buy-in.

“That would certainly be a good home for it if the county wants the data,” Romaniszyn said.

Like Ensley, County Commissioner Mark Swanger said he sees the landslide hazard maps as potentially useful as well.

“There is no objection to it. It is good information,” Swanger said. “I philosophically supported it when the state started doing it. It is another tool.”

That said, Swanger emphasized the landslide mapping wasn’t commissioned nor paid for by the county. He suggested the landslide maps could be on their own independent website.

Macon County went through similar hesitation about hosting the landslide hazard maps on its county web site. Landslide maps were completed for Macon County under the auspices of the state before the project was axed.

In the end, Ensley said he personally would want to know if a home or lot he was buying was in a landslide hazard zone, and thinks other people do to.

“Just because we don’t know about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, so a buyer should have that option,” Ensley said.

Romaniszyn said the landslide maps are actually directly related to his group’s mission of water quality.

“The maps will provide information on where unstable soils are located, which will help developers and others implement low-impact development practices that create stable road and home sites and prevent erosion,” Romanizing said.

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