Slide sends powerful message to Macon planners

Over the past month a slow-moving landslide behind the Craftsmen Village development in Macon County has worsened, leaving one property owner facing life without a home.

Michael Boggan’s house was condemned by the county last week, a decision arrived at jointly by the planning, soil and erosion, and building inspection departments. County staff deemed the house unsafe after determining the foundation was compromised. The earth around the home site has shifted, twisting the footings and cracking the foundation.

It’s the first time since the devastating Peeks Creek slide that destroyed 15 homes and killed five people in 2004 that the county has used GS 153.366 to condemn a property that wasn’t damaged by fire.

The county’s soil and erosion control director, Matt Mason, explained Boggan’s predicament to the planning board at its meeting last week.

“I think he honestly was afraid for his safety. He knows now he has to pay a mortgage on a parcel that’s essentially useless,” said Mason.

The implications of condemning the property are far-reaching, but the decision wasn’t taken without careful examination.

The story began in early February when Boggan noticed a crack in his driveway that appeared following a nearby landslide. The landslide originated from the back of a large, terraced retail development called Craftsmen Village that lies adjacent to Ruby Cinemas on U.S. 441.

In the wake of that slide, a noticeable scarp had emerged on the face of the hillside above Boggan’s house.

Boggan called the county on Feb. 11 and asked them to come look at it. Mason went out to examine the trouble. While the landslide had indeed opened up part of the hillside, Mason found that a scarp in some form or fashion already existed on Boggan’s property, but it was unclear whether the slide had exacerbated its movement.

So Mason asked State Geologist Rick Wooten to come take a look the next day along with other staff from the N.C. Geological Survey’s Asheville office.

After examining the hillside, Wooten determined the scarp on Boggan’s property had been growing for several years and said it should be monitored closely.

Fast forward a month to March 11. Boggan called Mason back, because the crack had grown into a 10-inch shelf that made his driveway impassable. Mason and Wooten returned to the site to find out how things could have worsened that quickly.

“Over the course of the month, the scarp had gotten bigger and extended, connecting to the other slide area,” Wooten said. “They’re becoming part of the same slide.”

Wooten estimated that a 13-acre tract of land, 30 to 40 feet in depth, had shifted.

When the county’s inspectors came to the Boggan property March 15, they found a house with a cracked foundation sitting on footings that were twisted and out of true. Meanwhile the hillside was still moving, providing the real threat of an even worse secondary slide.

Those factors left the county’s chief building inspector, Bobby Bishop, with a serious decision. He posted a notice of condemnation, leaving Boggan and his wife homeless.

Wooten hasn’t finished his site assessment on the February landslide yet, but certain details are clear.

It occurred on top of an older slide, and the scarp on the Boggan property had likely been widening since 2006. Meanwhile, the bedrock being excavated at the foot of the hill to make way for the Craftsmen Village development was badly weathered, creating ideal conditions for a slow-moving slide. Add to that the large-scale excavation undermining the base of the slope, and it was almost a perfect storm.

“One thing that can de-stabilize a slope is when you excavate into a hillside and over-steepen the toe of the slope,” Wooten said.

Barbara Kiers, a spokesperson for Joseph G. Moretti Inc., said Mr. Moretti was aware of the damage on Boggan’s land but has not seen any information that links the damage to the slide at Craftsmen Village.

Wooten is a geologist, and it’s not his job to determine if anyone is to blame for Boggan’s loss, but in the wake of the Maggie Valley slide, it’s becoming more and more clear that civil suits are poised to be a new part of the landscape where landslides are involved.

“These are local jurisdiction issues. We try to provide the factual information and our best understanding of the causes of events to any interested parties,” Wooten said.

Mason took the case to the Macon County Planning Board as an example of the need for a steep slope ordinance.

“The question is would the new ordinance have helped him?” Mason said.

The answer isn’t entirely clear, but the slope standards proposed by the Steep Slope Committee last month would have put three measures in place that may have helped Boggan’s cause.

The condemned house lies on property that has 30 to 35 percent slope in some places, which would fall within the threshold for county oversight. Under the proposed ordinance, county planners would have had discretion to require engineering.

In addition, another proposed standard could require geotechnical engineering for properties that lie in the certain landslide hazard areas.

Also the cut-and-fill guidelines proposed in the ordinance would likely have forced Craftsmen Village developer Joseph Moretti to seek geotechnical engineering expertise when excavating the property at the foot of the hill.

Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland thanked his colleagues for their foresight and greeted the event as a sign the county needs the steep slope ordinance in place as soon as possible.

“When we started this whole process, it wasn’t near the issue it’s become,” Penland said.

Maggie may get on board with county erosion control

The Town of Maggie Valley recently transferred the responsibility for building inspections to Haywood County. Now, Maggie is considering handing over soil and erosion control, too.

“We could really become a one-stop shop,” said Maggie planning director Nathan Clark.

Town officials from Maggie Valley and Clyde will meet Tuesday, March 23, with the Haywood County manager to discuss the potential takeover.

Both towns are also interested in exploring the possibility of adopting a county ordinance that regulates construction on steep slopes. Currently, neither town has such a policy.

The joint meeting follows a massive mudslide in Maggie Valley, which traveled 3,000 feet down the mountainside and damaged four homes.

Roads have been cleared, but up to 16,000 tons of unstable material still looms over the Rich Cove community.

Haywood’s steep slope ordinance allows the county government to force a property owner to clear debris from landslides. It can also coerce a landowner into stabilizing a slope that the county engineer deems unsafe.

If the Town of Maggie Valley adopts that ordinance, the county would have authority to deem the Rich Cove area an unstable slope, forcing Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park to take action.

Maggie Valley to compel Ghost Town to stabilize lingering slide threat

Ghost Town is far from off the hook for repairing the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.

The Rich Cove slide originated from Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park more than a month ago. About 16,000 tons of material remain unstable at the site, threatening an even worse slide.

No one has said yet whether natural causes or the failure of retaining walls led to the mudslide. But that might not matter. Town officials have discovered several lines of attack for forcing the amusement park company to foot the cleanup bill.

Town Manager Tim Barth has unearthed a state law that would allow the town to step in and stabilize the site then force Ghost Town to cover all the expenses.

Another more long-term option is to pass an ordinance regulating development on steep slopes — to prevent future landslides and force property owners to clean up slides that occur. The county already has such an ordinance, but the town chose not to adopt it, so it doesn’t apply to Ghost Town, which is within town limits.

The state law that Barth cited says a town can summarily remove anything that is dangerous to public safety within one mile of time limits. Expenses would be covered by the property owner. If they aren’t paid, the town could place a lien on the property and on any other property owned by the same entity in town, except for primary residences.

Barth acknowledges that it would be difficult to get Ghost Town to pay up since it’s already mired by bankruptcy. But the town may proceed anyway.

“It may be a situation where certain actions have to be taken to stabilize that area, and maybe the town gets paid back at a later time after the property is sold,” said Barth.

It would be beneficial for anybody who owns the land to repair the slide, Barth added.

Town officials are still waiting to hear on the prospect of federal assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The USDA may be able to provide 75 percent of funding for the Rich Cove slide repair, though local sources will still need to scrape up the remaining 25 percent.

The town and county plan to meet jointly after the estimate for the cleanup and stabilization work is finalized some time this week. Both governments hope Ghost Town will cough up money for the cleanup regardless of its bankrupt status.

However, Ghost Town’s bankruptcy attorney has said the park does not have the $250,000 it needs to open for the season unless an investor is found.

Steep slope ordinance in sight?

Barth recently consulted with Haywood County on the possibility of adopting a steep slope ordinance within town limits.

Because of the potential for another slide at Rich Cove, the town would have to move fairly quickly. It could adopt the county’s slope ordinance wholesale, rather than take the time to write one of its own.

“We recognize that there’s a time factor, that we need to probably get something in place fairly soon,” said Barth. “But we want to make sure we do things the right way, and in a way that makes sense for Maggie Valley as well as the county.”

Barth said the town had not pursued an ordinance in the past because little development occurred on steep slopes within town limits.

Another limiting factor was not having enough resources to hire a full-time engineer to enforce a steep slope ordinance. If the county agrees to handle enforcement, Maggie might sign on to Haywood’s ordinance.

“That would be the easiest, quickest way to have legislation enacted,” said town planner Nathan Clark, who hopes that the slide will renew serious discussions about a steep slope ordinance in Maggie.

Such an ordinance provides several ways to force a landslide cleanup.

For example, Haywood can delay necessary permits to hold up development until the slide is stabilized. It can also fine property owners until they cooperate.

“It might start out at $5,000 or it might start out at $50, depending on the severity of the slope failure and how much noncooperation there is,” said Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.

Under the county ordinance, Shumpert has the authority to deem a slope in danger of sliding a “critical slope” and compel the property owner to stabilize it.

For now, the county has little influence over the Rich Cove cleanup. That would change, however, if Maggie passes a steep slope ordinance and the county takes over.

“It all boils down to jurisdiction,” said Shumpert.

Two landslides hit in the Maggie area in January 2009, but they were outside the town limits so the county’s slope ordinance kicked into effect.

For the first time, Haywood County was able to force a property owner to clean up a slide.

One property owner recently submitted design plans for the slide stabilization.

The other owner filed for bankruptcy, and the county is now negotiating with the bank that’s taken over the property. Haywood has not filed a lien on the property.

Shumpert said the bank has two options: it can either repair the site and sell the house on it, or it can bulldoze the home and return the area to its natural state.

County reluctant to foot the bill for Maggie landslide clean up costs

Haywood County commissioners are reluctant to hand over taxpayer money to stabilize the latest landslide in Maggie Valley — even if the federal government chips in for much of the cost.

At a commissioners meeting on Monday, the Town of Maggie Valley asked the county to partner in a grant application from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program. If approved, the grant would pay to remove debris, reroute the natural stream channel, and most importantly, shore up the still unstable portion of the mountainside. About 12,000 to 16,000 tons of material is looming over the Rich Cove community, posing the potential for more slides.

The federal grant would cover 75 percent of the cost, while the remaining 25 percent would have to be found locally.

But lingering questions over whether the slide at Rich Cove was a natural disaster or caused by a failed retaining wall at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park has caused county commissioners to hesitate about participating in the program.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the issue at hand is whether Ghost Town is at fault. If so, the company, not county taxpayers, should pay for the slide’s impact. Ghost Town has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year, however.

Steve Steve Shiver, CEO of Ghost Town, said he just didn’t have enough data — namely the cost of cleanup and stabilization — to make any decisions.

“At this point, we’ll just wait and see what the estimates are,” said Shiver, adding that Ghost Town has been able to repair a road that was washed out by the slide over the weekend. Road access to the top of the mountain is now restored, Shiver said.

At one point on Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis asked Maggie Valley’s town manager point blank if the town would pursue litigation against Ghost Town in the future to recoup its costs.

“Is the Town of Maggie Valley willing to enter litigation to get their 25 percent back?” asked Curtis.

Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth replied the town would talk to Ghost Town about whether its owners would chip in to cover the 25 percent local match.

“It won’t get any cheaper for them, I’ll just say that,” said Barth. “If they have to fix that on their own, it’ll be 100 percent cost, and not 25 percent.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Mark Swanger worried about setting a precedent for providing county money to clean up slides, even when they occur on private property or are caused by private companies.

“How is this one different from the ones we had in the past?” asked Swanger.

Swanger said if Maggie is going to ask for county assistance, it should also follow the county’s lead in implementing regulations for development on steep slopes.

Curtis added that local governments should begin pushing to bring landslide insurance coverage to the state, even if it is expensive.

The commissioners ultimately decided not to commit to the program before receiving a concrete dollar figure on the 25 percent match.

“Really, the bottom line is going to be the cost,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

Town and county leaders will hold a joint meeting once the federal agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, comes up with a proper estimate for the stabilization and clean up.

A project manager and engineer surveyed the slide this week and hope to provide a damage survey report by early next week.

Carol Litchfield, a local representative from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said while legal complexities may arise with this particular landslide, it meets the objectives of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which only responds to natural disasters.

Litchfield said the main issue now is not the 25 percent, but whether the grant will be awarded given competition for the funds. Litchfield said it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up a site, though she does not have a ballpark figure for what it would cost to stabilize the Rich Cove slide.

The agency will not cover the costs for repairing structures or homes damaged by the mudslide, she added.

The last time the Emergency Watershed Protection Program was utilized in this area was to mitigate the impact of the 2004 floods in 17 western counties, including in Haywood and Macon counties. At that time, a federal state of emergency was declared, and the state covered the 25 percent match.

With this slide, there hasn’t been enough damage to call for a state of emergency at the state or federal level, though both the county and the Town of Maggie Valley signed a disaster declaration.

For now, the threat of another slide still looms over Rich Cove with a precautionary zone that covers more than double the size of the area currently damaged by the slide.

“We got to do something,” said Greg Shuping, emergency services director for the county. “The fact remains that we have a threat.”

DOT plans ahead to stave off slides

Rather than continuing a reactive approach to rockslides on Interstate 40, the DOT is making a widespread effort to prevent disasters like the Oct. 25 slide from occurring again.

The DOT says it will invest $4 million to stabilize five other sites that have either experienced slides in the past or are likely sources of future slides. The money will hopefully come from federal highway emergency funds.

“If there’s a silver lining in all of this,” said Jon Nance, DOT’s chief engineer of operations, “it’s that we’ve located other areas that need to be repaired to prevent another occurrence like this one.”

All of the sites are in the final five miles of the Pigeon River Gorge before reaching the Tennessee line. The area is known for instability and has been prone to slides since its construction. When a second rock slide struck six weeks ago — in the same vicinity as the major slide — it triggered an assessment of the corridor to identify particularly unstable spots.

This additional work will not affect the reopening of I-40, though one mile of the westbound lane will be closed until this summer to finish it.

The DOT estimates the new project will employ between 50 to 100 more people. The first step is removing unstable rock in a process called scaling, which involves men with crowbars dislodging loose rock. Large bolts will then be set deeply into the mountain to snug down the rock face.

Landslide damages financially-strapped Jackson development

A landslide at the Waterdance development in the Tuckasegee area of Jackson County washed out a road and dumped a significant amount of mud and concrete into the Tuckasegee River in early February.

Robbie Shelton, erosion control officer for Jackson County, estimated the slide laid bare a 75-foot-wide swath about 100 yards long. A retaining wall holding back a cut-and-fill slope above a road broke, and the resulting slide covered an entire lot at the development.

“It was just retaining too much water and the hydrostatic pressure caused it to fail,” Shelton said.

Shelton said the cause of the slide had not yet been determined.

Shelton said cold weather froze the slide and limited the effects of runoff. He also said the near flood levels of the Tuck’s West Fork may have minimized the impact by diluting the sediment. Shelton said there were no visible soil deposits downstream of the slide when he examined the river days after the event.

Water Dance is located between Tuckasegee and Glenville and is owned by Legasus, a mega developer that once held more than 4,000 acres in Jackson County. The developer fell victim to the recession and has faced numerous foreclosures over the past year.

The slide damaged a lot owned by Patrick Kennedy, who bought large acreage from Legasus during the company’s financial problems. Shelton said Legasus is currently working on a mitigation plan for the soil and concrete that entered the river, and the company’s engineers are studying the roadway. Water Dance was started before Jackson County passed a new, more restrictive subdivision ordinance, but its roads met county standards, Shelton said.

Shelton has received numerous calls about slides around the county as heavy rains and snow hit the mountains hard in February.

“These slides are occurring countywide,” said Shelton. “None as visible as this one, but I’m vetting calls every time it rains.”

Another slide closed a lane of N.C. 281 near Little Canada, and Shelton received reports of a third heavy slide near Whittier.

Ghost Town pays liability insurance bill after slide

Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park was behind on its general liability insurance payments in the months leading up to a massive landslide that originated from its property.

Ghost Town has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year. It was three months behind on payments for its general liability insurance coverage when the slide occurred on Feb. 5, according to paperwork filed as part of bankruptcy proceedings.

Ghost Town had an arrangement with a finance company to make insurance payments on its behalf. In return, Ghost Town was supposed to make regular payments to the finance company, First Financial.

But Ghost Town got so late on payments that the finance company sent a “notice of cancelation” of coverage effective Jan. 28.

“Your insurance coverage referenced above is hereby cancelled as of the cancellation date indicated,” the notice states. The notice states that Ghost Town had “already received the statutory written notice of our intent to cancel and any cure period has expired.”

Another two weeks passed before Ghost Town sent a payment. On Feb. 10 — a few days following the landslide — Ghost Town wired $27,400 to the finance company to cover the past due bill from the last quarter of 2009 and the current quarter of 2010.

The status of Ghost Town’s account with First Funding for the liability insurance was found online. A payment of $13,000 was due in November of 2009. Three statements were sent out demanding payment over a three-month period.

The words “cancel status” then appear beside the account on Jan. 28. Account records show payments totaling $27,400 were wired on Feb. 10.

Lynn Sylvester, a Ghost Town partner and CPA, said the late payments to the finance company did not result in a lapse of insurance.

“Fact is, our insurance coverage did not lapse, and in fact, was always paid in full by the finance company, First Funding,” Sylvester said. However, First Funding filed paperwork with the bankruptcy court on Jan. 29 stating it had canceled the policy.

Representatives with the insurance company, First Mercury Insurance, would not say whether Ghost Town had general liability coverage at the time of the slide — which falls in the two-week window between the cancellation notice issued by First Funding on Jan. 28 and when the payments were wired on Feb. 10.

“That is between us and the insured,” said Bill Costello, a claims adjuster for First Mercury Insurance Company. Costello is handling a few other liability claims against Ghost Town, but said the company has not received any claims relating to the landslide that he is aware of.

Marcia Paulson, the vice president of administration with First Mercury Insurance in Southfield, Mich., also would not say whether Ghost Town’s insurance had lapsed during the window.

“I don’t know that I could address that. You are not the insured or the insured’s counsel,” Paulson said.

Ghost Town took out the general liability policy with First Mercury Insurance Company in May 2009 with an annual premium of $61,000, according to bankruptcy filings.

A company in bankruptcy reorganization is required to stay current on its insurance. The physical property of a bankrupt company is the only collateral for its debts. The property must be properly insured to protect the interests of those owed money.

BB&T, which is owed $9.5 million by Ghost Town for loans taken out to buy the property and fund upgrades, has the most at stake in bankruptcy proceedings. BB&T filed court papers on Feb. 3 objecting to Ghost Town falling behind in payments for its general liability policy. BB&T attached the notice of cancellation for the policy as an exhibit in the court filing.

Ghost Town had also received cancellation notices for its auto, property and fire insurance, which BB&T entered into the record as well.

BB&T is pushing for liquidation of Ghost Town’s property to pay off its debts rather than allowing it to continue operating under reorganization in the hope it can turn a profit and regain its footing.

The slide originated from Ghost Town’s property where a massive series of terraced retaining walls gave way. Geologists either haven’t determined or aren’t saying whether the slide was due to natural causes or was triggered by failure of the retaining wall.

Ghost Town hired a contractor to make repairs to the retaining wall when a portion collapsed in 2007. But some of the old railroad tie walls were left in place, resulting in a combination of new and old work. That in turn has led to finger pointing by Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver and Carolina-A-Contracting of Maggie Valley, which did the work in 2007.

Nuts and bolts of landslide mapping

Macon County was the first to be targeted under a statewide initiative launched in 2006 to map areas prone to landslide in the mountains.

Over a one-and-a-half-year period, a team of state geologists led by geologist Rick Wooten surveyed 770 locations in Macon County and found 165 landslides evident from photo records between 1951 and the present.

The bulk of the slides have occurred on public land, on the highest reaches of the mountains. Landslide risk increases critically at 22 degrees of slope or right around a 40 percent grade, according to the data collected during the mapping project.

Macon County was the first to be systematically mapped because of the Peeks Creek slide, which killed five people when it ripped down the mountain for 2.5 miles. Watauga County came next because it has the most landslides recorded, followed by Buncombe because it has the most people. Jackson County is slated to be surveyed this year, with Haywood County next in the queue.

The landslide hazard mapping program creates a comprehensive database of historic slides and potential slide pathways that can be integrated with a county’s GIS maps. They can help emergency management officials plan evacuation procedures, but they can also help shape policy.

While Wooten said he is not in the business of making policy recommendations, he did have a definite idea of what his research has taught him.

“One thing that comes through in all the work we’ve done is there has to be a wholesale approach to where and how people build on steep landscapes,” said Wooten.

Geologists: Maggie landslide still unstable

While residents wait for answers and 16,000 tons of debris hangs precariously over the Rich Cove community, an army of people are assessing the aftermath of the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.

Representatives from the North Carolina Geological Survey, the Division of Water Quality and the Division of Land Quality have all made trips up the steep mountain to survey the slide site.

Haywood County’s contingent includes its erosion and sediment control team and the county engineer, while geologists from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and an engineer from Ghost Town in the Sky have also studied the impact firsthand.

Yet, not one of these experts has officially determined the clause of the mudslide, which traveled more than a half-mile down the slope, seriously damaging several homes and leading to the evacuation of 45 residents.

They won’t say if the slide is a natural disaster or caused by failed retaining walls on the slope, a terraced system that dates to various time periods. The answer could make all the difference for homeowners, whose insurance policies won’t cover a natural landslide.

For Kurt Biedler, the lingering question is not simply when he’ll return home, but if he’ll be able to go back at all. The foundation of Biedler’s house has been compromised and cracks riddle its walls.

Though Biedler plans to move south of Asheville for now, he is closely watching the response to the slide.

“When one gets displaced from their home, there’s a million questions we have,” said Biedler. “But we know it takes time to get the answers.”


Can’t get there from here

The place to go looking for answers undoubtedly rests at the top of the mountain, where Ghost Town’s retaining walls clearly gave way. Whether they caused the slide or the slide caused their failure is still being debated.

But getting up the mountain to fix what’s left has now become an ordeal. The landslide has thrown major debris across at least two parts of Rich Cove Road, blocking the only direct path to Ghost Town by vehicle.

Early Thursday afternoon, a team of geologists from N.C. Geological Survey made their third trip to the slide, along with Marc Pruett, Haywood County’s erosion control officer; and Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.

Fie Top Road provides one detour to the top, climbing up west of the slide on Rich Cove.

Halfway up the road, the team must make a pit stop at a staging area set up on the side of Fie Top. The two trucks are armored with snow chains to tackle the narrow, icy road ahead that snakes across the mountain toward Ghost Town.

But the road only leads so far, and they eventually park the trucks and hike down a steep, snow-covered path.

Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C. Geologic Survey, said the main goal that day was to familiarize themselves with the site, collect information, take photographs and define hazardous areas that are prone to landslides in the future.

“Public safety is the important thing at this point. That’s really our focus,” said Wooten. “We’re really not in the position or have the expertise to assess the wall. We’re geologists and not engineers.”

Still, Wooten has said that heavy snowmelt and more than two inches of rain both contributed to the slide. He has put in a request with the National Weather Service to compile a weather synopsis of the weeks and months leading up to the event.

Back on Ghost Town’s property, geologists measured cracks in the ground, just yards away from children’s rides stopped in mid-air. Some of these cracks were so deep that geologists needed the aid of a meter-long hiking pole to discover where the crevice ended.

A major source of worry for Wooten and his team continues to be moving land near the slide that has been vertically displaced by almost four feet. At first, the drop had measured only three feet.

“That’s why this is an area of concern,” said Wooten.

Meanwhile, Shumpert hopped over the fence to take a closer look at the retaining wall. Since this was the first time Shumpert was getting a close look at the structure, he said he was not prepared to make any official statements.

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.

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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