Landslide hazard maps axed by state: Risky slopes in Jackson, Haywood to remain a mystery for now

Republican lawmakers have pulled the plug on the state’s landslide mapping unit, terminating a controversial project to assess which slopes in the mountains are landslide prone.

A team of five state geologists working on the maps are being laid-off this week, saving the state $355,000 a year.

“They are very disappointed as we all are. We felt this was important work from the perspective of public safety that had a lot of value, and we are disappointed we couldn’t complete it,” said Rick Wooten, a senior state geologist and landslide expert based in Asheville.

When the team was created in 2005, their mission was to map 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 halted in its tracks.

“I thought it was an added benefit and I was glad we were at the front end of it,” said Tom Massie, an advocate for landslide mapping in Jackson County who serves on the Mountain Resources Commission. “Anyone getting ready to buy a piece of property or build a home would know whether it was a suitable site. Now they are going to have to proceed at their own risk.”

Haywood County was next in line, but won’t being seeing its landslide maps either.

“I feel like we will be losing a valuable tool in the planning process for the land that is left to develop in Haywood County,” said Marc Pruett, an erosion control officer in Haywood County.

Landslide mapping has proven controversial, however. Critics fear the stigma of being in landslide hazard zones would make property hard to sell or develop.

“Certainly some of the legislators have been very open in their statements that they viewed these maps as a backdoor to regulation and were not the least bit sorry to see these maps go away,” said DJ Gerken, and Asheville-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That begs the question as to whether it was truly budget concerns and cost-savings that prompted lawmakers to target the landslide mapping. Indeed, environmental policies and funding have taken a big hit under the Republican controlled legislature. (See related story in Outdoors section.)

Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said landslide mapping was killed to save money — not because of an ideological stance.

“We had to make cuts throughout government this year and one of the areas that I didn’t feel like was a ‘have-to’ thing was the landslide mapping program,” Gillespie said.

But, Gillespie makes no bones about it: the state shouldn’t meddle in steep slope regulations. And Gillespie indeed feared the landslide maps would become ammunition to push through slope construction laws at the state level.

“That’s what they were doing it for,” Gillespie said of the landslide maps.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he fielded a call from emergency responders in Haywood County — where several homes have been hit by landslides in the past decade — asking him not to cut the program. The landslide team was always one of the first on the scene when slides struck.

“Our role was to help out the emergency managers figure out what happened. Is it safe to work around here? Is there still unstable material up here? If there is, where might it go? Do we need to evacuate people? When is it safe to go back?” Wooten said.

If the state had plenty of money, Davis can’t say what the fate of the landslide mapping unit would have been.

“To be perfectly candid, I don’t know. That is a different conversation. Since we didn’t have the money we didn’t get to that conversation,” said Davis.

 

Good riddance

Not everyone is sad to see landslide maps fall by the wayside. Lamar Sprinkle, a surveyor in Macon County and a member of the planning board, said he feels like Macon is penalized as one of the four counties to have completed maps.

“As a property owner I would think if my property lay in one of these zones, it would devalue my property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said a prospective buyer from out of state would likely be turned off from property that falls in landslide zone, without knowing exactly what that meant.

“If I went down to the coast and there was some kind of red flag throwed up to me that I didn’t totally understand, I probably wouldn’t buy that piece of property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said he doesn’t understand how the maps were arrived at and is hesitant to take them at face value. He said the maps are a knee-jerk reaction to the Peek’s Creek tragedy. While a tragedy indeed, Sprinkle believes it was a random act of God. He sees landslide mapping as an arbitrary and fruitless endeavor that will do little to actually predict where a slide might hit in the future.

“There are some things we don’t have any control over,” Sprinkle said.

In wind storms, trees have fallen on homes, one even killing a couple inside.

“You don’t go passing an ordinance to make everybody cut the trees around their house,” Sprinkle said.

Ron Winecoff of ReMax Elite Realty in Franklin said Macon would be better off without the maps. He, too, fears it could devalue property.

Winecoff said Realtors in Macon have been confused over whether they are obligated to tell prospective buyers when property falls in the landslide hazard zone. Do the same rules apply as lead paint or asbestos? For now, the answer is no, supposedly.

“The state board of Realtors has told us we do not have to disclose it and so we don’t disclose it, but I don’t know whether that is right or not,” Winecoff said. “If you are aware of it, any item that effects the property adversely needs to be disclosed. Technically probably we should be disclosing those maps because they do exist.”

Critics of landslide mapping fear that property undeserving of such a label would be blacklisted and become impossible to sell.

More often that not, however, the landslide mapping would help people figure out where on a lot to put a house. Landslides follow predictable paths down the mountains, and building outside that path is usually all that is needed, say experts.

The path of a landslide is about 60 feet wide — about 30 feet to each side of the natural drainage course.

Gerken pointed to the Peek’s Creek disaster in Macon County, where 15 homes were destroyed in 2005. Those built closer to the drainage were flattened while those 10 yards to the side survived intact.

That’s why Pruett sees the landslide maps as a planning tool.

“If you had a chance to buy a piece of property and you knew where there might be a hazardous spot, wouldn’t you want to move your house 50 feet away from it? How could that not be helpful?” Pruett said.

There is, no doubt, some property in the mountains simply too steep, too unstable and too prone to landslides to build on — as unfortunate as that may be for the person who owns it and would like to sell it, Pruett said.

“Sometimes you just have to look a bear in the face and say it is a bear,” Pruett said.

But the landslide maps shouldn’t be blamed for pointing out the obvious.

While the homebuilders and real estate groups have actively lobbied against the landslide maps at the state level, not all developers are against them.

Ben Bergen, a builder in Jackson County and board member on the local Homebuilders Association, thinks the maps would have been a good tool.

“We would have liked to see it through to completion,” said Bergen, owner of the green building firm Legacy. “North Carolina is a buyer beware state in terms of property. I agree it is up to the buyer to inform themselves, but I thought it was going to very useful as a builder.”

At the very least, the maps would alert people to buy supplemental landslide insurance, Massie said. Regular homeowners insurance doesn’t cover landslides. Homeowners are out of luck — whether a home is totally flattened or the foundation destabilized due to shifting soil. They can’t sell their home, nor will insurance compensate them. Meanwhile, they have to keep paying the mortgage on a house they can’t live in. Often, bankruptcy and foreclosure become the only option.

The state has taken pity on some landslide victims and bailed them out. The state spent $3.2 million to buy out damaged areas of the Peek’s Creek slide in macon County.

Meanwhile, fixing a landslide in Maggie Valley cost the state and federal government a combined $1.4 million.

Gerken said the cost of landslide mapping would pay for itself by avoiding such disasters.

“It is an extremely affordable investment to avoid those costs,” Gerken said.

Gerken equated it to floodplain mapping, a long-standing practice that curtails building in flood-prone areas.

“Not because they happen every year, but it doesn’t make sense to build structures in an area that will likely get hit every hundred years,” Gerken said.

The maps aren’t exactly sweeping indictments of every steep mountainside. In Macon County, 11 percent of the county falls in the high landslide hazard zone. In Buncombe, its 10 percent, and just 6 percent in Henderson. Watauga comes in higher with 20 percent.

 

How to map a landslide

Unlike lightning, landslides nearly always strike in the same place twice. Mapping old slides is the single biggest indicator of where future slides will occur.

Many of the homes destroyed in slides over the past decade were built on top of old landslide deposits — something that landslide mapping could have warned people about, Wooten said.

“Some landslide deposits go back hundreds of thousands of years. They are usually quite large because they are an accumulation of many landslides that occur over geologic time,” Wooten said.

Wooten’s team has entered 3,000 old landslides in the state’s database so far. There are thousands more out there.

The mapping falls short of being able to predict the next slide, however.

“People say, ‘Well, where is it going to happen next time,’” Wooten said. “Eventually over geologic time it is going to reoccur.”

Geologists rely most heavily, however, on aerial photography over several decades to find evidence of slides, which remain visible for years.

In Jackson County, aerial photography from the early 1950s still revealed slides dating back to 1940, a fateful year when 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, triggering thousands of slides across the region.

Robbie Shelton, Jackson County’s erosion officer, was one of the team’s go-to consultants. He often acted as a guide, helping the team scout their way up mountainsides using locally known dirt roads and cart paths to reach an old slide.

After tagging along on the ground reconnaissance missions, Shelton knows what to look for and can hopefully warn builders and developers even though the county won’t have a complete map.

“I feel like I have a little better handle on it, having been out with Rick and his team, to be able to say, ‘This might not be the best place for you to think about building and you might want to consult a geotech,’” Shelton said.

The landslide unit has been working frantically to get the Jackson County maps to a good stopping point, and enter all the data they have so far into the database.

Wooten said he will drop off whatever GIS files they have done with Jackson County sometime next week, and then formally shut the books on the project.

While interesting, the half-finished map of where old landslides occurred is only somewhat helpful. The most important step — translating the location of old slides to identify low, moderate and high hazard zones — hasn’t been done.

While Wooten will remain employed as a state geologist and landslide expert, he won’t be finishing up the maps on his own.

“The message from the legislature was they do not want the mapping done,” Wooten said.

 

Putting the maps to work

So far, no county has banned building outright in high hazard landslide zones. What’s more likely is that landslide hazard zones will pinpoint where to impose regulations.

But of the four counties that were mapped, only Buncombe has actually done anything with them. In Henderson and Watauga, the landslide maps have found a cozy home on the shelf with no sign of being taken down anytime soon.

In Macon County, planners hope the landslide map will be incorporated into a new steep slope ordinance currently in the works. If passed by county commissioners, Macon will join just half a dozen WNC counties with slope ordinances — ranks that also include Haywood, Jackson and Buncombe.

Macon’s ordinance sets out a few simple parameters, like limiting the height and steepness of cut-and-fill slopes. On the steepest slopes, builders would have to consult an engineer.

And that’s where the landslide maps come in. Areas that fall in moderate to high landslide hazard zones would also require engineers to build on.

Wooten said that is a reasonable application for the landslide maps.

“If you were looking for a place to buy and the maps were available, you could see areas where there is a high landslide potential that would give you the information to seek additional help from geologists or engineers,” Wooten said.

But Sprinkle, who sits on the Macon planning board, doesn’t think the landslide maps have a place in the county’s ordinance, questioning their accuracy. And now that the landslide mapping team is dismantled, who can they call if they find an error in the maps, Sprinkle asked.

“There are lot of pitfalls in having maps with nobody to look after them,” Sprinkle said.

 

What’s next

While landslide mapping is gone for now, future lawmakers could start it back up. But a team will have to be re-assembled and the learning curve repeated.

“We paid to develop a lot of expertise in landslide mapping that we are now throwing to the wind,” Gerken said.

Landslide mapping gained traction following two back-to-back tropical storms that dumped a massive amount of rain on the mountains in 2005, triggering dozens of landslides. The most tragic was Peek’s Creek in Macon County, where five people, including a child, were killed and 15 homes destroyed.

“That was probably the event that got the attention of legislators,” Wooten said.

Gerken said the loss of life is inevitable without a more cautionary approach to siting homes.

“This short-term political decision simply cannot hold because we are going to see the consequences again,” Gerken said. “These kinds of events are part of mountain geology, and they will happen again. It is only a matter of time.”

 

 

See the maps online

To see Macon County’s landslide map, go to www.geology.enr.state.nc.us/Landslide_Info/MaconCounty.html. A partial map for Jackson will eventually be posted with a link at wfs.enr.state.nc.us/fist/.

Bad air days common so far this summer

Feeling a bit stuffy these days? You’re not alone — stagnating weather patterns and excessive heat, coupled with a heavy pollen load, made for difficult breathing conditions for some this month.

Take Joan McDonald, 66, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who was in a Sylva pharmacy recently shopping for allergy medicine. She was surprised to discover her allergies in “high gear” in the supposed pristine mountains of Western North Carolina.

“I can’t breathe,” said McDonald, who was camping in a local RV park. “I’m totally stuffed up.”

She’s got plenty of company. But what is simply a discomfort for people such as McDonald presents potential real dangers for others. Ozone levels have prompted a series of warnings from air monitoring agencies, and it’s early yet in the season.

Air quality officials earlier this month warned of “Code Orange” conditions at elevations higher than 4,000 feet, and yellow — moderate — conditions down the mountains some.

Ozone comes from sources such as automobile tailpipes, “baking” in heat and sunlight on hot days.

Exposure can impair lung function, cause respiratory irritation, aggravate asthma symptoms and weaken the immune system, experts say. Not to mention particulates are creating a heavy haze over the aptly named “Smoky” Mountains, though recent rains have helped improve visibility.

Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said although the air-quality situation obviously isn’t terrific, it’s actually an improvement over the 1990s, say, when air quality was even poorer. Clampdowns on emissions have made a difference.

“We are heading in the right direction,” said Renfro, who has been helping to monitor the quality of the air in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since about 1986.

And there will need to be even more improvements, because the bar will be raised again this summer.

Renfro said yet tougher restrictions are coming down the pike. This increases the likelihood of even more bad-air warnings, though ironically, the air quality could actually be improved, he said.

Building districts by the numbers

This year, the math of moving districts will give virtually every western block a shift.

Sen. Jim Davis’s, R-Franklin, Senate District 50, which now claims seven counties — Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, Jackson and Transylvania — plus part of Haywood, lacks around 15,000 patrons to reach the threshold.

“I know my district is going to change,” said Davis. “We’ve got to pick up 15,000 in population, but I don’t know exactly how it’s going to change. I think that I may get more of Haywood County, but I don’t know for sure.”

He could scoop up a greater share of Haywood to bring enough voters into the fold, but all of Haywood would push him over the threshold. Unless, however, Transylvania was given the boot.

Without Transylvania, the seven western counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, Graham and Cherokee — perfectly comprise a Senate district. Haywood would not need to be split between two senate districts as it is now.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Haywood County, the horseshoe-shaped ward of Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, that wraps from Haywood up to Mitchell and back down to McDowell likewise needs to expand its boundaries to bring in enough voters. This is due partly to the across-the-board district broadening the census has imposed on rural areas and exacerbated by possibly losing his existing slice of Haywood. He will likely have to shift northeast to pull in enough people.

Over in the house, Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, knows his district will have some rearranging to do, as well.

“It will have to be divided. There is no way you can do it (otherwise),” Haire said. “There is a certain amount of common sense that goes in to it.”

The way he sees it, the process must start in Cherokee County, at the state’s westernmost corner, picking up the populace in pieces as it moves along.

“You have to have so many people in a district. If one county doesn’t have it you add another county, if that doesn’t do it you add in another,” said Haire.

And if you start in the corner and move steadily eastward, it’s almost certain that his district will, again, split Haywood.

House District 119, Haire’s domain, now takes in Swain, Jackson and parts of Haywood and Macon counties.

But doing east-moving math, Cherokee, Graham, Clay and Macon make a perfect district — just upwards of 80,000 people, falling neatly in the range for a House district without splitting any county. From there, it moves up toward Jackson and Swain, but those two together are 20,000 people shy of a district. So Haire would have to take a 20,000-person bite out of Haywood or Transylvania; one of the two would have to be split.

Slicing Haywood to give to Haire seems the most likely for a couple of reasons, the most practical being geography and likeness — Haywood is far more similar to and easily accessible from Swain and Jackson counties than Transylvania.

But there are, of course, political considerations as well.

Rep. David Guice, R-Brevard, holds all of Transylvania at the moment. And his party holds the power in this year’s redistricting, so it seems unlikely that splitting that historically Republican county away from Guice would be high on any Republican agenda.

Right now, Haire has a pretty small sliver of Haywood County — around 25 percent — but were he to grab from there as many votes as he needed, he’d be claiming almost half of the county.

Which brings the discussion to Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who now shares the county with Haire. He would lose some of his voters in Haywood to Haire’s district, forcing him to push further north and east in a bid for a full district, claiming the whole of Yancey County into his three-county district.

Redistricting to grow mountain districts

In legislatures around the nation, it’s that time of decade again — time to break out the old redistricting maps and rehash the legislative lines.

Every 10 years, following the decennial census, lawmakers are constitutionally obliged to rearrange their districts so a roughly equal number of people are in each one, ensuring an representative Democracy of one person, one vote.

In North Carolina, the General Assembly is permanently comprised of 170 members: 50 senators and 120 representatives. Most every district will be finagled at least a little.

The state’s population grew by 18.5 percent, so the number of people in each districts must likewise grow. House districts, then, need 79,462 people. Senators now have to represent 190,710.

Since creating districts with such exact numbers would be hopelessly arduous, the rules allow for 5 percent more or less in every district.

For senators and representatives in the west, this means their districts will likely grow, pushing north and east in the pursuit of enough constituents.

This whole series of scenarios is a picture of the larger, statewide trend: over the last decade, urban areas have blown up. Rural areas, not quite so much, according to the 2010 census.

So legislators in more rural regions on the state’s mountain and coastal bookends are going to see their already-sizable districts balloon in geographic scope, freeing up legislative seats for faster-growing urban areas.

On the whole, two governing principles drive the redistricting process: equal representation among districts and districts where the predominant factor isn’t race.

Beyond that, the state’s constitution asks that counties be kept together, though as Western North Carolina proves, that’s often impracticable.

Then there’s the added political layer, which is what produces gerrymandered districts, those that are outlandishly drawn to cater to one party or politician’s interest.

In the gerrymandering game, North Carolina isn’t quite a gold-medal winner. Maryland has a few districts that resemble nothing so much as a polygraph readout, while Florida boasts a congressional region or two that look like a dot-matrix printer gone awry on a map.

But political considerations have factored into the state’s districts, and they haven’t always taken the constitutional mandates into account, splitting counties either for necessity or political consideration.

One thing nearly everyone agrees on, however, is that the future of redistricting would be a more equitable landscape if politics were taken out of the process altogether.

That’s the intent of House Bill 824, co-sponsored by Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, which passed in the House earlier this month.

It calls for a non-partisan, staff-penned plan that’s based on district compactness, continuity and constitutional mandates. Legislators would then give the map an up-or-down vote.

“I think what’s important is they don’t take into account the current residence of sitting members. So you don’t get into ‘oh, that’s so-and-so’s district, we’ve got to carve that out so he stays or she stays in this district,’” said Rapp.

The plan would kick in with the 2020 census and is based on Iowa’s method, which has been operating there for four decades without a single court challenge. The same cannot be said for North Carolina’s procedures.

“I think what it’ll do is ensure fairness in the process,” said Rapp. “Every decade we’ve had court challenges to the redistricting plan in North Carolina. I think there’s just a time when you say, ‘let’s do it right.’ Just do it straight up, straight forward so it’s fair and let the chips fall where they may.”

Rapp found bi-partisan support for the measure in the House, and he’s hoping for the same in the Senate.

For his part, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he’s not against the idea.

“Some states do it that way and it seems to work pretty well,” said Davis. “Politicians are going to be really reluctant to give up that authority, but I think that has some merit.”

The legislature doesn’t yet have a final plan for the new districts, but committees have been meeting in both chambers to investigate the task, and the whole assembly is slated to start discussing it in mid-July, with recommendations due by the end of that month.

 

To split or not to split

Haywood County is a split county in both chambers represented by two different legislators. But now, there’s a move afoot to pull it back into a single district. Anyone putting pencil to paper to do the math, however, has realized it simply might not be possible.

This year, Haywood County’s Republican Party is lobbying for the county to be returned to one district, arguing that two house and two senate districts are confusing to voters and dilute the county’s legislative influence.

“It would be better if we were dealing with one legislator better than two,” said John Meinecke, chair of the Haywood County Republican Party. “The fact that we’ve been separated diminishes our political authority with the people in Raliegh. We’re the largest county west of Asheville, and yet it diminishes our political authority by having it divided the way it was.”

Local Democrats maintain the opposite, saying that four is always better than two, giving the county more clout and voice than surrounding counties.

“We are well-served — or have been in the past — by having four instead of two. We’ve had two senators and two representatives. I guess it just serves our county better,” countered Janie Benson, who heads up the Haywood Democrats.

Though they’d been asked to support a resolution in favor of joining the county, county commissioners declined to take a stance on the issue earlier this month.

Ubiquitous phone book still a staple

This June, 91,000 pounds of paper will make its way into Western North Carolina. Some of it will end up in kitchen drawers, some will be used as doorstops, some will end up as litter dotting the roads, while still more will eventually find a home in the landfill.

It’s this year’s shipment of Yellowbooks, an annual tradition that could one day be an anachronism in an increasingly digital world.

But Neg Norton doesn’t think that day will be soon. He’s the president of the Local Search Association, also known by various other names including the Yellow Pages Association.

“It still plays a big role,” said Norton of the good old printed phone book. “About 75 percent of adults used print yellow pages some 11 billion times last year. We have some 3 million small-business advertisers across the country. Clearly they do so because they’re getting a good return on investment.”

But some think that rather than being a relevant tool, the phone book is an annoying relic. On the West Coast, San Francisco lawmakers are looking to ban the book from city limits unless a customer requests it. A similar measure in Seattle was met with a lawsuit last year by Norton’s group, who lobby actively on behalf of the $13 billion industry.

In Waynesville, such severe measures aren’t on the table, but Town Manager Lee Galloway said he does hear complaints about the tomes.

“Especially at some houses that were vacant and it jut became litter,” said Galloway.

And that is a problem with phone books. While Local Search said it’s involved in recycling old and unused books, they don’t necessarily take responsibility for returning to collect phone books that haven’t been touched since delivery.

And then there’s just the sheer volume. Twenty-five years ago, there was usually only one phone book to be found on the market. Now there are dozens in every region across the country.

The two main competitors in WNC are Yellowbook and AT&T’s The Real Yellow Pages, but nationally Norton said there are 200 separate companies hawking books.

That’s thanks to a 1991 Supreme Court decision that declared phone books outside the realm of copyright, as they held only a miniscule amount of original content.

But with the Internet so ubiquitous that Google has become a verb, even Norton conceded that when a younger generation of digital natives reaches adulthood, the printed books might become museum fodder. And, he said, his group is OK with that. They don’t want to pass out unwanted books — it’s as bad for them as it is annoying to the consumer.

“It does us absolutely no good to deliver a phone book to somebody who doesn’t want one. We don’t make any money by distributing additional copies,” said Norton. That’s why they’ve created an opt-out website, yellowpageoptout.com, that allows consumers to pass on the phone book. According to Norton, they’ve gotten around 400,000 opt-outs nationwide with the site, which doesn’t include those who call the book publishers directly to cancel.

But even if they are self-regulating, the industry has historically railed against legally mandated opt-in or opt-out programs.

In 2008, a bill was introduced in the state Senate, co-sponsored by local senator John Snow, that would force phone book companies to provide customers the option to decline. It died after the first reading, thanks in part to lobbying by the Yellow Pages Association.

“We think it’s wrong of the government to select winners and losers in the print media market,” said Norton. “We think that’s a very dangerous precedent for the government to set.”

Plus, he pointed out, with programs such as the one proposed in San Francisco, if 75 percent of people use the book at some point in the year, it’s impractical to ask them all to opt in.

Though do-not-deliver programs aren’t mandatory in North Carolina, Yellowbook Market Manager Michael Hartnett said he does field a call every now and again.

“Yes, it happens. But it’s a rare occurrence,” said Hartnett. He said the 91,000 Yellowbooks they’ll be distributing this year in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties have held pretty steady for the last few years. But nationally, the trend is going down.

This year, there are 8 percent fewer phone books hitting the streets than the year before. And many are smaller, thanks to the elimination of the residential white pages in many larger markets.

In this way, say industry advocates, phone book companies are doing their part to reduce their own waste stream. They’re making books smaller, and all books are completely recyclable. In fact, that’s what they’re made of — themselves. When old books are recycled, they’re combined with disused woodchips gleaned from the lumber-making process and pressed into new books, a cycle that repeats itself each year.

So even as the digital revolution marches on, that staple of the kitchen drawer still, for now, has a life and a place.

“We still have a lot of people using the phone books,” said Galloway, and for those that do, they’ll be pleased to know a new shipment is already headed their way.



Facts
• 1: percent all paper products accounted for by phone books
• 0.3: percent of municipal waste stream generated by phone books
• 731,000: tons of phone books distributed in 2010
• The first phone book was created in 1878 for New Haven, Conn., residents. 
• Interleafing two phone books will make them impossible to pull apart. 
• To opt out of phone book delivery, visit
yellowpagesoptout.com

Regional food forum to look at WNC needs

With the latest increase in gas and grocery prices, the already long lines at soup kitchens and food pantries across Western North Carolina are growing even longer.

“The need is going up again,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva. “We could break another record this year.”

That’s not a record Grimes is particularly thrilled about: In 2010, the Sylva group served 20,393 dinners alone, double the number of dinners served at The Community Table the previous year, when 10,335 were given out. The surge, Grimes said, is directly attributable to the hard times individuals and families are experiencing as fallout continues from the nation’s long economic slump.

The story is the same across WNC. The need is getting greater and greater, even as many people’s abilities to help financially have become increasingly difficult. That widening chasm, and the best means of tackling the problem regionally, will be the focus of a forum on food security Monday, April 25, at Western Carolina University in the A.K. Hinds University Center.

Sponsored by WCU’s Public Policy Institute and MANNA Foodbank, the forum is intended to highlight the problems of hunger in WNC and outline possible regional solutions, said Paul Dezendorf, a WCU professor who is helping organize the event.

“North Carolina has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, and the Asheville metro area ranks No. 7 in the country for food hardship among all metro areas in 2010. We all know that the rural counties are even worse, not better,” Dezendorf said.

There are two main objectives set for this forum at WCU: the first is to provide a public setting for discussing the problem and deciding how to improve the situation, and the second is figuring out how the academic community and those directly involved in feeding the hungry can communicate better.

A networking session for community organizations will be held in the morning. The public session is set for 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and will include speakers from MANNA FoodBank and other area nonprofits, plus local experts on healthcare and sustainable agriculture. That event will take place in the theater of the University Center.

Dezendorf said he and other organizers hope the forum will evolve into an annual event focused on increasing food security across WNC.

 

Want to help?

The Community Table in Sylva needs assistance picking up boxes of donated food from Wal-Mart. Pickups are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. If you can help on one or more of those days, call Amy Grimes at 828.586.6782. Additionally, the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year is set for Friday, April 22, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets for the Empty Bowl are $20, available at the door, and include choices of handcrafted, locally made bowls; plus soup, bread and desserts from local restaurants. 828.586.6782.

Festivals getting ramped-up for spring

With the coming of spring the pungent ramp is about to strut center-stage once more.

For either the novitiate or the aficionado, there are ample opportunities over the next month to sample this Southern Appalachian delicacy — no fewer than three spring festivals in the immediate area feature ramps, a plant that at one time ranked among the lowliest members of the leek family.

This attention accorded the ramp is relatively newfound, though one must note for the purposes of accuracy that Waynesville’s venerable ramp festival has been around for many a year — featuring a ramp eating contest where grown men face off across a fodling table to see who can stuff the most of the eye-watering bulbs in their mouth.

SEE ALSO: Ramp recipes

But once upon a time, and not so long ago, eating lots of ramps was considered offense — and offensive — enough for children to be sent home in disgrace from school. The reaction was swift and uncompromising, akin to what could be expected if said children had been sprayed by skunks and then attempted to pass unnoticed — not sniffed out, as it were — in class. Eating too many ramps, you see, can cause one to emanate odors that, in these more sensitive olfactory times of yester-yore, was considered simply too much for delicate classmates and teachers to endure.

You ask, pre-ramp festival visitation, what should be considered eating “too many” ramps? That would constitute a pile, or perhaps a bushel and a peck: Never, ever fear sampling a mere few ramps.

Besides, even if you do eat a pile (there are ramp-eating contests, after all) and return home smelling of this native delight, these days that’s considered oh-so-cutting edge. Eating the odiferous ramp is practically the pinnacle of culinary fashion — restaurants in New York City, no less, now prominently feature ramps on menus.

The popularity of ramps has grown so much, in fact, that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2002 banned collection. Picking plants and taking them from a national park is generally considered poaching. But an exemption had been made for ramps in the Smokies “because of the traditional practices by Native Americans and European settlers,” Smokies spokeswoman Nancy Gray said.

The tribe protested and lobbied the park to reconsider and allow native people to continue ramp harvests, but to no avail. Gray said there was no legal authority to bend poaching rules for ramps collected by Cherokee people.

There are still public lands where one can legally dig ramps.

For personal use, people can harvest up to five pounds of ramps free on the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Mike Wilkins, district ranger for the Nantahala National Forest, said the maximum commercial use is limited to 500 pounds, with no more than 50 percent of the bulbs harvest in a 1-foot by 1-foot area. Fees are charged for commercial harvests.

“Personnel use is (harvest) anywhere,” Wilkins said. “We rotate the areas for commercial harvest.”

 

Ramp festivals

• Mountain trout and wild ramps are featured at the annual Rainbow and Ramps festival on Saturday, March 26, at 9 a.m. at the Cherokee Indian Fair Grounds. Hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Entertainment, music, Civil War reinactors and food featuring ramps. A $10 lunch will be served starting at noon, consisting of rainbow trout or fried chicken, ramps, pinto beans, fried potatoes, cornbread, dessert and a beverage.

• Waynesville Ramp Festival, May 1, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. American Legion Field, Waynesville.

• Robbinsville Ramp Festival, May 1, noon until the food is gone, downtown Robbinsville.

Deadly bat threat spreading in WNC

Biologists recently confirmed white-nose syndrome at a third site in North Carolina, meaning two counties are now positive for the disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the eastern United States.

The disease was confirmed late last month in Yancey County. It was previously discovered in a retired Avery County mine and in a cave at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

“We knew that white-nose syndrome was coming and began preparing for its arrival, but we have a lot of work to do to address the impact of this disease on bats and our natural systems” said Chris McGrath, wildlife diversity program coordinator in the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s Wildlife Management Division.

While much remains to be learned about white-nose syndrome, there is evidence that people may inadvertently spread the fungus believed to cause the disease from cave-to-cave. Therefore, the most important step people can take to help bats is staying out of caves and mines.

While there are no known direct human health effects of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, the impact upon humans, other wildlife, and agriculture as a result of declines in bat populations could be substantial. Bats play a significant role as night-flying insect predators.

At this time, the fungus appears to grow on bat skin in the cave environment during hibernation. Infected bats may spread the fungal spores to other bats and roosts during the warmer summer months; however, the fungus only grows in a narrow range of temperatures (41 to 56 degrees Fahrenheit) in high humidity conditions.

High-speed broadband continues march across the mountains

Work to bring broadband to all of North Carolina — including adding missing sections of fiber in the mountains — is well under way, leaders with a state nonprofit group said.

Construction on an important link from Enka to Sylva that will run through Haywood County is targeted for completion by early May, Tommy Jacobson, vice president of MCMN’s network infrastructure initiatives, told about 50 regional business and political leaders during a conference held at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.  

North Carolina has received $255 million in federal recovery grants to extend broadband in the state, via MCMN (Making Connections in North Carolina).

The new fiber will help groups such as BalsamWest FiberNET in Sylva and other telecoms by providing them with additional capacity and making them more efficient. BalsamWest is a private entity that is jointly owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County-based Drake Enterprises. It worked independently to build a broadband infrastructure to serve Western North Carolina, putting in 300 miles of fiberoptic cable.

“Bandwidth demand will never go down,” Phil Drake of Drake Enterprises said of BalsamWest’s ability to use extra broadband capacity.

The missing piece now being laid in Haywood County has been described as critical to that county’s economic wellbeing by elected and business leaders: MedWest, a collective of hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, has estimated such a connection would save MedWest alone at least half a million dollars.

Additionally, construction on an 18-mile stretch of fiber cable in Graham County, which will tie back into BalsamWest, is slated to start this summer. Jacobson said his group is working to get clearance to build through the Nantahala National Forest.

He dubbed the process “challenging,” dryly describing the U.S. Forest Service “as an interesting agency to work with.”

“Little can be done out here without public-private partnerships,” said Cecil Groves, CEO of BalsamWest and the former president of Southwestern Community College.

Joe Freddoso, president and CEO of MCMN, agreed. He said the group used BalsamWest and Blue Ridge EMC (serving the state’s westernmost counties and north Georgia) as a model for expanding service to rural areas across North Carolina.

“That model was crafted here,” Freddoso said, “by a region that met its own need.

Second-home economy makes its mark on WNC

The second-home economy has fueled far more than construction and real estate jobs over the past decade.

“If it’s someone’s second or third home, they aren’t bringing anything with them,” said Doug Worrell, the president of High Country Furniture in Waynesville. “They aren’t moving their furniture.”

As a new economy emerged to support the second-home movement, furniture stores have proliferated throughout the region.

Worrell saw a customer last week who bought a home at Bear Lake Preserve in Jackson County and wanted it furnished by Friday. On the other end of the spectrum, a couple who hadn’t yet closed on their lot, let alone started building, were already browsing for their dream furniture.

A brand-new house also calls for art and décor. Enter the many galleries and boutiques filling downtown store fronts through the region.

“What impact does the second home market have on Main Street? Major,” said John Keith, owner of Twigs and Leaves gallery in downtown Waynesville.

Many second-home owners make a hobby out of decorating their new mountain abodes, and Twigs and Leaves had the sales to prove it. But as second-home construction slowed over the past three years, so did the purchase of artwork, Keith said.

While Keith has no doubt the second-home market will return — few places can beat WNC as a destination for retiring boomers — some galleries have been unable to wait out the downturn. Just last month, Echo Gallery in the upscale Biltmore Village closed down.

No one knows the importance of the second-home economy more than Danny Wingate, the vice president of Haywood Builders in Waynesville.

Haywood Builders nearly tripled its sales over the first half of the decade, peaking at $30 million in sales in 2006. The robust growth was fueled almost entirely by the second-home market, Wingate said.

“Our business was made up primarily of high-end second homes,” Wingate said.

The large number of gated communities popping up in Jackson County spurred Haywood Builders to open a Design Center in downtown Sylva, where people building homes could pick interior features from kitchen cabinets to bathroom lighting.

“It was a platform for us to access the Jackson County market, particularly for cabinetry,” Wingate said. It was a savvy move: Wingate recalled one homeowner who spent $140,000 on cabinets alone.

But that has all changed now.

“We are off substantially,” Wingate said of sales today compared to that boom period.

Last year, sales had dropped to $12 million, a precipitous decline from the peak of $30 million in 2006.

Wingate has a bird’s eye view of the construction industry, with builders constantly funneling through his store, where both prices and customer service beat out his big-box competitors. Contractors who were once among his top 10 biggest clients are now struggling to find work.

“Even our big boys are out of work,” Wingate said.

 

Time for reflection

The slump in second home growth isn’t all bad, according to Ken Brown, Chairman of the Tuckasegee Community Alliance in Jackson County.

Brown questioned whether the growth rates of the past decade are sustainable. Jackson County saw the largest population growth of any county in WNC among year-round residents, as well the biggest increase in home construction, much of it in the second home market, according to the census.

“It is hard to gauge what kind of an impact that had when you have that many folks building second homes,” Brown said. “It is kind of unprecedented in my time.”

The economic downturn has been like a pressure relief valve on a boiler.

“I think we need to assess just what kind of development we want,” Brown said. “You wonder if that trend could happen again if the economy does pick up. It would put a tremendous amount of pressure on the county.”

Now is not the time for counties to let down their guard on mountainside development or roll back ordinances regulating slope construction, he said. Jackson County passed some of the region’s most progressive and restrictive development regulations four years ago — largely in response to the unparalleled building boom. But that could change given a slate of new commissioners elected last fall.

“We felt like they may try to weaken or water down the ordinances,” Brown said.

So Brown and like-minded citizens in Jackson County have formed a grassroots task force to keep an eye on any moves by the newly elected board of commissioners to undo construction regulations, Brown said.

Brent Martin, who lives in Macon County and works for The Wilderness Society in Sylva, said the face of the mountains could change dramatically if the second-home dynamic continues on its current trajectory.

“It will be very interesting to see what this place turns into in another 30 or 40 years,” Martin said.

“I don’t know how we would handle it. The current downturn is allowing us to catch our breath and step back and figure out how to address the next wave of it — because it is certainly coming.”

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