Sunday, November 25, 2007


November 25, 2007

Susan K. Ihne, Executive Editor
Asheville Citizen-Times
P.O.Box 2090
Asheville, North Carolina 28802

Dear Ms. Ihne:

Your newspaper today published a real estate feature for Breakaway Village. Ms. Terrell's article, "Live on a mountaintop and ski" discussed all the advantages of buying property in this resort but there was no mention of the fact that this steep slope property is located in a high risk natural landslide hazard area.

In my letter to Governor Easley on February 17, 2006 I expressed concern about the safety of the steep slope construction sites for Breakaway and the adjoining property called Scenic Wolf.

On March 7, 2006 James D. Simons, Director and State Geologist for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources responded to my letter: "Your concern about the potential problems of mountain development, including the Scenic Wolf Mountain Resort, is certainly justified. We have already seen a number of cases of severe property damage and loss of life results because of development in areas of unstable slope."

In all fairness, your readers should be advised that Western North Carolina landslides are frequent, serious, and uninsurable threats to real estate values.

Lynne Vogel

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Western North Carolina Mountain Slope Construction... Is It Safe?

Gambling with the Unknown

New data from the North Carolina Geological Survey shows that the rain storms of September 2004 set off 155 landslides, caused five deaths and destroyed 27 homes in the western counties of North Carolina.

Since these regional fifteen county disasters there has been an explosion of mountain resort development in Western North Carolina. No one is certain what impact this will have on mountainside stability, but geologists know and have stated that this increased residential and resort construction on mountain slopes is exposing more people to the threat of landslides.

Landslides do happen spontaneously but evidence shows that most slope failures in Western North Carolina are caused by improper construction practices. According to state geologists, building resorts and subdivisions on mountain slopes necessitates cutting roads into steep terrain and placing homes on vertical slopes. The infrastructure for this development requires burying piping for water, sewage, and septic systems in degraded and vulnerable ground. If construction for these projects is not done safely and carefully, these artificially created slope sites will fail.

Local environmental officers are also expressing alarm about Western North Carolina's unregulated building practices. On March 27, 2006 Marc Pruett told the Haywood County Commissioners: "Currently anyone with a bulldozer and backhoe can carve out home sites and roads into the mountainside. This lack of engineering is causing homes and roads to slide down the mountain throughout the county."

Pruett, who directs the county's erosion-control program, has a slide show he uses to illustrate the ongoing local disasters. Please see "Disappearing Haywood" by Jeff Schmerker, The Enterprise-Mountaineer, October 31, 2005.

Pruett's shocking photos show roads that have simply disintegrated as the land beneath them has shifted. There are images of chocolate-brown waterways clogged with runoff from construction. Others show slopes so steeply cut that they are continually eroding. Homes fare no better. Some have been knocked off their precarious perches by landslides;foundations are laced with cracks so big you can see daylight. Still other houses are being ripped to bits as the "solid ground" they are built on starts to move. And in just about every case, says Pruett, a combination of substandard construction and inappropriate sites is to blame.

Jeff Turner, District supervisor for Buncombe County Soil and Water, stated in a letter to a local newspaper in January 2007 " I, along with many of you, have personally witnessed the condemned homes from past quick development of mountainous terrain. We have already learned our lesson here. We don't need anymore of this. Some of these homes, only a few years old, are now just worthless investments. Developers who code jump or try continually to get variances on legitimate ordinances should be run out of town and forbidden to ever contract in our county again." MountainXpress, " Economic development meets steep-slope reality" January 31, 2007

In the spring of 2005 a landslide covered Oak Street in downtown Spruce Pine. "It's a gravity thing," said Alex Glover, a geologist for Zemex Industrial Minerals. "It's a fact of nature, there's nothing that can be done to stop more debris from falling." Mitchell News-Journal, March 16, 2005, "It's a gravity thing" by Nathan Hall. As reported in the article, Glover said the town can
install permanent barriers to block or catch falling debris, but the construction will be expensive and there is no way to permanently stabilize the bank.

"It's a bad situation," he said pointing to a large slab of exposed rock, its sections clearly slanted toward Oak Avenue. "It's like a stack of dominoes, tilted, and now loosening and falling apart." Glover said the sections of rock called "Ash", a group of old ocean -type sediments mixed with volcanic sediments. He said the formations, millions of years old, were originally formed to be flat, but shifted due to mountain building. He said as the rock degrades, it forms Saprolite-which is basically weathered, rotten rock.

Western North Carolina's "Build Anywhere" approach is a developer's dream but a potential nightmare for unsuspecting buyers and current property owners. State geologists and other informed professionals warn that the consequences of error can be great when homes and roads are carelessly placed on questionable mountain slopes. The profitable but dangerous practice of up mountain slopes significantly increases the possibility for slope failures particularly in weathered rock regions. There are safe building locations in Western North Carolina but these sites can only be determined by state licensed experts. For unbiased information about Western North Carolina landslides and safe building standards please visit the North Carolina Geological Survey and local environmental offices.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Professional Assessment of Landslides in Western North Carolina

Landslides in the counties of Western North Carolina are frequent, but not publicized, geologic events. State geologists warn that evidence shows construction on unreliable slopes will trigger landslides.

According to Tyler Clark, chief geologist with the North Carolina Geological Survey, "There have been landslides in the North Carolina mountains since prehistoric times, but now more people are vulnerable because more people are choosing to live in areas that may be prone to landslides. When you add to that hurricanes or other storms that could start a landslide you have a really dangerous situation."

"Our studies of landslides across North Carolina over the last year and a half indicate that a large number of them occurred because of things that people have done to alter the landscape. These activities have included construction of roads, house building, and the cutting of trees. When you try to develop land on a steep slope, you can change a stable condition to an unstable one."

Geologic maps show that about 56% of all landslides in Macon County occurred on slopes that had been altered by human activity.

Mr. Clark also states "You can build in many places in North Carolina, but you have to do it right. You need to have good planning, design, and construction anytime you develop, and part of that is knowing what hazards to look for."

In Western North Carolina the selection of building sites has been left to the discretion of county planners and real estate developers.

Planning on buying property in Western North Carolina? Check with the county office for a copy of their slope regulations. If the ordinances do not include a site specific stability study as a requirement for the building permit there is a reasonable possibility that the slope is unstable. For more information about safe building sites check with the North Carolina Geological Survey.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Deadly Landslide in Maggie Valley, NC

"When Ray Hobby heard there had been a landslide at his friend’s house in Maggie Valley two winters ago, he dashed out of work at the Maggie Valley Country Club and headed across town."

"There were mobs of people already there, mostly rescue workers swarming Edward Jones’ property in an attempt to find Jones’ wife, Patricia, who was buried in the landslide and would later be found dead. But Hobby gravitated in a different direction, to the source of the landslide. A state road on the hill 20 feet above his friend’s home had slid away, crashing down the near vertical slope, simultaneously shoving the house off its foundation and burying it."

Although only 6 people have been killed by landslides in the past four years, increasing development on unstable slopes will lead to future slope failures and fatalities. For more information about the Maggie Valley landslide please read the complete article in the Smoky Mountain News, "Who is to blame" by Becky Johnson July 13, 2005. For additional information about this landslide and other Western North Carolina slope failures please visit

Monday, November 5, 2007


So you have fallen in love with our beautiful mountains, and you’re ready to buy your Western North Carolina dream home. How do you choose? The answer is: carefully. Living on a mountain entails significant personal and financial risks. The mountainous counties that make up Western North Carolina are in a landslide-hazard zone, and the North Carolina Geological Survey is in the midst of assembling a hazard map that unfortunately will take years to complete.

Insurance industry professionals have compiled data about the probability of slope failures and according to Robert Hartwig, President of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute, “Homes in these areas ( mountain slopes) are accidents waiting to happen.”

In recognition of these extreme risks, most insurance companies will not provide protection for earth movement losses whether natural or man-made. Research indicates that a few Lloyd’s brokers are willing to sell specialty landslide insurance but they will not cover homes on the riskiest slopes and the policies that are available are costly.

Since most property owners will be self insuring for these common place threats, it is critical to know that building sites are safe.

Who is responsible for determining safe slope construction sites in Western North Carolina?

This serious responsibility has been relegated to builders and developers. Land brokers have purchased thousands of acres in every county across the region and their only business is developing and selling this known, but yet to be determined, high risk real estate. These groups have successfully fought all efforts to require investigation and regulation of their construction practices.

It is important to note that safety standards dictate that all slopes in designated landslide hazard areas be professionally examined if there is any possibility of ground instability. Currently this is not a requirement in any of North Carolina’s county slope ordinances. In fact, some counties (even those declared federal landslide disaster areas in 2004) have no regulations over slope development.

In October 2006, Governor Easley issued a press release promoting the completion of the Macon County landslide maps. He 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.” Today only one map has been completed, homes continue to be built on suspect land, and prospective buyers have no information about the behind the scenes landslide mapping program.

Western North Carolina landslides are not mountain myths…they are real threats.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Open Letter to Roy Cooper, Attorney General of North Carolina

On May 21, 2007 three landslide advisory billboards were posted in Asheville to warn residents and prospective buyers that unstable slopes are common natural perils in Western North Carolina. The web site documents the catastrophic fifteen county slope failures of September 2004 and demonstrates that landslides are constant and uninsurable threats to property values.

It is not fair that identifiable risks are being concealed in presale negotiations. Interested parties must be clearly warned with a natural hazard statement of the risks they are assuming.


Please be advised that you are buying property in a high risk hazard area and this will affect your ability to obtain insurance. _________ County, location of _________ is in a state designated landslide district. The slope stability risk factors of the state mandated landslide mapping program were not available at the time this residential project was completed. ___________ was developed under regulations that did not require North Carolina licensed geologic site specific safety stability studies. You may wish to seek professional advice about this property.

Precedent indicates that the Attorney General can act quickly and responsibly to inform the public of property risks. In April 1996 the North Carolina Office of the Attorney General responded to inspection reports of the moisture retention problems of stucco clad homes(EIFS) in North Carolina by notifying builders, developers, and real estate agents that they would have to furnish cautionary disclosure statements to all buyers interested in these properties. The North Carolina Real Estate Commission concurred: property damage caused by EIFS is a material fact and must be disclosed.

"(A)gents should disclose available information about synthetic stucco to consumers and refer them to building inspection offices, manufacturers, and other experts for further information. In addition, agents may wish to refer prospective purchasers to professional inspectors for a thorough examination of the property."

All buyers deserve the right to be informed of substantive and uninsurable property hazards.