Saturday, December 22, 2007

Western North Carolina Landslides

The residents of Western North Carolina are on a precipice literally and figuratively and unless immediate action is taken to stop development of hazardous mountain land, earth movement and landslides will escalate causing unnecessary loss of life and severe financial distress. There are standards that can be legislated to help prevent the next succession of landslides. But if no action is taken, the 15 county landslide disasters of 2004 will only be a preview of the future devastation that is awaiting the region.

The officials responsible for public safety issues in North Carolina have only to look to California for guidance on how to mitigate the causes of landslides and other natural hazards. In 1998 the State of California passed an urgency statute titled the Natural Hazards Disclosure Act. The legislation recognized that the existing regulatory inconformity and lack of oversight were allowing developers to construct homes, roads, and other buildings in hazardous areas and that these actions were substantially increasing the possibility of more disasters. The Natural Hazards Disclosure Act defined natural hazard areas as zones of required investigation. This means that before a development permit can be issued or before a subdivision can be approved, cities and counties must require a site specific investigation to determine whether a significant hazard exists at the site. If the findings determine slope instability then engineering measures must be used to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

In addition to requiring strict regulation and control over the development of hazardous land, the Natural Hazards Disclosure Act compels all sellers of real property and their agents to provide prospective buyers with a "natural hazards disclosure statement." In strong language the Act advises all prospective buyers of the risks they are assuming when they choose to buy property in a high risk hazard area. The Disclosure Statement, Civil Code Section 1002.6c, warns all prospective buyers that the high risk designation may, "limit owners' ability to develop property, obtain insurance, or to receive assistance after a disaster." The statement also suggests that buyers and sellers, "may wish to obtain legal advice regarding these hazards."

In October 2006 Governor Mike Easley issued a press release to the residents of Western North Carolina advising that the first of the state landslide maps had been completed for Macon County. The hazard map shows historic landslide events in the county and attempts to determine factors of slope instability and how far a mountainside would move in the event of slope failure. The Governor said, "These maps will show which areas are prone to landslides and that will help developers, county officials, and residents decide where to safely build homes, roads, and other structures."

Governor Easley clearly states that landslide mapping provides critical information for all parties involved in the regulation, development, and purchase of hazardous land.

It is unacceptable that for more than three years the state has allowed local governments and developers to willfully disregard established geologic safety standards. Local and county governments have granted permits for hundreds of major and minor subdivisions on unmapped and very likely hazardous ground. Not one of the regulators in the 21 county landslide prone districts have required investigation into the stability of these slope side building sites.

Developers have profited greatly from this laissez-faire regulatory environment and have been allowed to place homes virtually any where they please. These negligent construction practices have placed the residents of Western North Carolina at severe risk.

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