Sunday, December 23, 2007

Western North Carolina Mountain Real Estate

Swain County Landslide Property Damage
Steep, high excavations in debris fan deposits can be unstable.
This cut slope failed during the May 5-7 2003 rains in Swain
County. Although the cabin remained intact, the failed debris
pushed it 3-5 feet off its foundation.

photos compliments North Carolina Geological Survey

The real estate in Western North Carolina is offered as safe and secure property, but in reality this mountain slope acreage is dangerous and financially risky. How risky? The state issues landslide advisories whenever excessive rain is forecast for the western counties. Investors should note that approximately 75% of the salable land in Western North Carolina is located on more than a 15 degree slope and state geologists warn that this is the threshold for landslide activity.

After the wide-spread disastrous slope failures of September 2004 and in advance of the "Is it Safe to Build Here" regional landslide stability study, real estate companies purchased thousands of acres throughout Western North Carolina. This preemptive business strategy was opportune. Once developers have been granted permits for mountain slope subdivisions they are "grandfathered in" or in other words exempt from changes in regulations. Even when landslide mapping shows the probability of extreme slope failures, developers are allowed to continue building because they have "vested rights" in the projects.

Western North Carolina investors should proceed with caution for there are no protections afforded the purchasers of the region's high risk real estate. If the sale of this volatile land were covered under the Securities Exchange Act, real property investors would be informed in a prospectus of Western North Carolina's landslide designation, the possibility of significant financial loss, and the absence of insurance. The companies selling this questionable and potentially worthless real estate would be required to provide investors with a transparent description of their business activities.

Even though legislative findings and geologic investigations have proven that Western North Carolina landslides are ever present threats to lives and property, Realtors are not required to divulge this pertinent information. Until the state assumes responsibility for safe slope construction standards and Realtors are required to disclose material risk, investors should be skeptical of all mountain property that has not been certified by a state licensed geologist.


The people who will be buying mountain slope property in Western North Carolina are unwitting participants in the next series of inevitable landslide disasters. Prospective buyers of said property should be concerned that home sites and access roads in this high risk region were developed, and are being developed, without the proven safeguards of landslide mapping and site specific stability testing.

To protect their investments, buyers should ask sellers for an engineering report that states the home site is safe. Sellers are not qualified to make these assessments. Slope stability can only be determined by state licensed engineers and geologists. The costs for site specific geologic stability analyses are affordable, generally less than $1000.

If the seller is unable to provide site specific safety documentation for the property, then the seller should be responsible for the costs of obtaining these reports. If engineering studies determine slope instability then the seller should be responsible for the expense of correcting the engineering flaws. Geotechnical engineering can be successful in providing security and stability to the site but often there are no remedies to halt eroding mountain slopes. For this reason prospective buyers should insist upon a site specific safety investigation. According to Allen Kropp of Allen Kropp and Associates, a geotechnical firm in Oakland, California "You can protect yourself once a slide starts to move, but it's almost too cost prohibitive to stop the slide."

There is pending landslide litigation against Mountain Air Resort Development Corporation. Mountain Air is located in Yancey County and is one of the oldest and most recognized resort communities in Western North Carolina. Within the resort, a grouping of condominium buildings have suffered serious structural damage from landslides. The property owners are suing the developer, his contractors, and consultants for negligence and breach of contract for failure to provide proper slope stability analysis and geotechnical engineering for the building sites. Listed in the Complaint: the condo buildings have been severely damaged, including separating of decks from the buildings, cracking in foundation and supports, movement of stairs and walls. Two of the condominium buildings have been uninhabitable since January 2005.
(o6 CvS 51, o6 CvS 54, 07 CvS 19)

Mountain homeowners in Western North Carolina as well as those in California are being confronted with another destructive phenomenon... a creeping earth movement that cannot be prevented or stopped. Geologists call this type of landslide a big slow mover. The loss of homes in the Hunters Crossing Ridge development in Waynesville are examples of the catastrophic effects of this type of landslide in North Carolina. The first indications of structural damage in the properties were cracks in basement walls. Within weeks of this observation, the mountain's continued movement had caused large cracks and crevices to appear in the yards and parking areas around the homes. The homeowners' association employed Alpha Environmental Sciences Inc. to determine if the properties could be stabilized. Extensive studies and tests determined that there were no engineering measures available to stabilize the ground under the properties. The Hunters Crossing families have been advised that their insurance policies do not cover damage caused by earth movement and that they are responsible for the costs of having the condemned properties removed. It should be noted that if this mountain site had been tested for stability, these homes would have never been built on this location.

Homeowners in California have also suffered financial loss from this same type of slow moving landslide. In the spring of 2005 three new multimillion dollar hillside homes in the Anaheim Hills neighborhood of Orange County had to be demolished after geologists and city inspectors concluded that the homes had been built on an old, unstable,and uncontrollable landslide deposit.

The mountains of Western North Carolina are like mountains everywhere, inherently unstable and often dangerous. State and county regulators have allowed this hazardous land to be developed with reckless abandon. The consequences of their actions will be severe.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Building Homes & Roads on Western North Carolina's Unstable Soils Can Cause Landslides

Roads built of micaceous soil material are subject to landslides.
Acid leachate stains of metasedimentary rock.

According to Michael Sherrill

"Crystalline rocks, such as mica schist and mica gneiss, are high in mica content. This rock tends to produce soils and saprolite high in mica content. Soils and underlying saprolite erode easily and are difficult to compact when used as earthen foundation material. Soils such as Fannin and Chandler have a high mica content and are poor as engineering materials. Micaceous rock tends to weather deeply. Most micaceous saprolite commonly extends tens of feet below the soil surface."

"The relationship of soils to metasedimentary rock formations in western North Carolina is difficult to interpret. Metasedimentary rocks generally are composed of thin beds that dip at some angle from the horizontal. When slopes parallel the bedding dip, soils are very susceptible to landslides. Some thin beds contain sulfur compounds and produce a yellowish leachate during road building. This leachate is very acid. When this leachate enters nearby streams, fish kills and other aquatic damage commonly occur. The map unit descriptions in modern soil surveys discuss this soil/geologic problem and discuss possible solutions." For more information about Western North Carolina landslides and unstable soils please visit 1979-1999: Two Decades of Progress in Western North Carolina Soil Surveys
Michael Sherrill, Soil Scientist, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Reynolds Mountain, Western North Carolina Mountain Slope Development

A view of Reynolds Mountain under construction.
Photos compliments of Southwings

During a March 21, 2006 Buncombe County formal session, Buncombe County commissioners discussed safety regulations for expansive slope side developments. During the public hearing Gary Higgins, Director of the Soil and Water Conservation District, told the group "We are not opposed to development in Buncombe County, but what we are concerned about is that as you move up steeper slopes you cannot apply the same rules of construction that you do lower down. They are more likely to erode and cause downstream problems." Building homes and roads on steep slopes results in extreme rates of soil erosion Higgins said, and erosion-control measures are not as effective on these settings. In addition, it's "very difficult to establish ground cover on such areas because excavation goes down into subsoil and such soils are shallow and poor, often with a high mica content." Higgins also said that excavation cuts going down to bedrock create slowly permeable surfaces where runoff is greatly increased.

Higgins displayed a group of slides illustrating these problems in an "unnamed development." Higgins said these photos show that "there is tremendous sloughing and slipping of impacted slopes." The slides also included pictures of early construction sites on Reynolds Mountain. Higgins predicted that "the likely effect of such high-density development is to cause landslides."

For more information about the Commission hearing, please see Cecil Bothwell's article "Steep canyon rearrangers" in the March 29, 2006 issue of MountainXpress.

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.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Western North Carolina Landslide Update for Mountain Air Resort

Mountain Air Resort property owners have experienced significant and potentially irreparable landslide damage. According to court documents, "in 2003 the foundations of two buildings of the five unit Austin View Villas began cracking and in late 2004 the foundations of the Units began and/or continued moving and sliding on the side of the mountain upon which the Units had been constructed, causing the foundations, wall structures, floors, and other components of the Units to crack and to deteriorate substantially. As a consequence, the Units became-and remain-completely uninhabitable." The owners have been "deprived entirely of the use and enjoyment of their homes since January 2005." For more information about this lawsuit,( 07 CvS 19), and Western North Carolina landslide property damage please visit A trial date has been scheduled for August 2008.

During the summer of 2004, the Hemlock Bluff units which are adjacent to the Austin View Villas, began shifting on their slope sites. "As a result of this moving and sliding, the foundations, wall structures, floors, and other components of the Hemlock Bluff units cracked and deteriorated, causing substantial damages." This complaint,( 06 CvS 51), was settled out of court.

The Mountain Air Resort slope failures are not unusual. In fact, Western North Carolina landslides cause frequent financial distress to property owners throughout the region. It is remarkable however, that the news media has chosen not to report on landslide property damage in a nationally known mountain resort. Filings show property loss in excess of $5 million. The property owners' complaint against Mountain Air Development Corporation is news worthy. How can investors make informed decisions about buying real estate in Mountain Air Resort or any other Western North Carolina mountain slope community if this information is hidden from public view?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

North Carolina Home Builders Association

June 23, 2006

Dave Stormont, President
North Carolina Home Builders Association
P.O. Box 99090
Raleigh, North Carolina 27624-9090

Dear Mr. Stormont:

I have a question for you and the members of your organization. Would a family choose to accept the serious personal and financial risks of buying property in a designated landslide area? I cannot answer that question and neither can you. Presently there is no legal requirement for disclosing that all of the 21 counties in Western North Carolina are classified as high risk for landslides. Please see enclosed document from the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management.

In 1983, the state of North Carolina passed the Mountain Ridge Protection Act. This remarkable bill recognized the dangers of mountain development and the reality that local municipalities were not capable or qualified to mandate standards for mountain ridge construction. Today, the issue is not high rise construction on ridge tops, it is the placement of mountain slope resorts and homes on sheared vertical slopes. The dangers of this type of building are as acute as those addressed in the 1983 legislation.

Earth movement and landslides are frequent in Western North Carolina and their effects are devastating. In September 2004, fifteen counties in Western North Carolina were declared federal disaster areas after Hurricanes Frances and Ivan passed over these mountains. The rain from these storms activated 130 landslides, caused 5 deaths, and destroyed 27 homes. The North Carolina General Assembly has authorized funding for a landslide hazard map for most of Western North Carolina. Unfortunately, the study will require 4 years and will not affect state or local building codes.

Extensive rain from hurricanes is not the only cause of landslides. Landslides can be caused by gravity, a broken water pipe, natural mountain movement, or unsafe building practices. In December 2003, a landslide destroyed a home in Waynesville. The husband was rescued from the debris, but his wife did not survive. Mr. Jones, the survivor, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. Then there are the families in the Hunters Crossing neighborhood in Waynesville who have lost their homes to earth movement. One of the saddest aspects of these tragedies is that the families have discovered that there is no insurance coverage for the loss of their homes. Insurance companies are aware of the probability of earth movement and landslide hazards and they will not insure the risk.

The public expects full disclosure of known risks. Buyers of mountain slope property should be advised on the sale contract of the serious risk of damage to their homes from earth movement and landslides. The buyers should also be warned that they cannot buy insurance to protect their homes from these catastrophes.

We are all willing to accept risk, but we want to know about it.

Thank you for your interest in this matter.


Lynne Vogel
original letter posted on

View of Mountain Slope Development

Scenic Wolf Mountain Resort. Madison County, North Carolina. Madison County has no slope regulations.

Your letter of February 17, 2006 to Governor Easley concerning development in Madison County has been referred to my office for reply.

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. Historically, restriction of mountainside development has been left to local government. Such regulation could include the types of requirements mentioned in your letter. North Carolina does have an erosion and sedimentation control law that requires that slopes be stable from erosion.

In response to the hurricane damage in the mountains, the General Assembly did authorize in 2004 that this Division start a landslide hazard mapping program for nineteen counties, including Madison County. When completed, these maps would be provided to county governments for their use in possible regulation. Although mapping for Madison County is not scheduled to be completed before this project is likely finished, the landslide database does show past slope movement in the general area of the project.

Thank you for your letter and concern. I wish I could better address your concern, but there is currently very little state regulation in this matter. You may want to express your concerns to the county government.


James D. Simmons, Director and State Geologist
North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources
copy of original letter on

Breakaway Village and Scenic Wolf...Mountain Slope Resorts

February 17, 2006

Governor Michael F. Easley
Office of the Governor
20301 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, North Carolina 27699-0301

Dear Governor Easley,

I would like to bring to your attention the planned rezoning of 334 acres in the upper Laurel Valley in Madison County. Madison County is one of many mountain municipalities and the decisions that the Board of Commissioners make affect the county, the region, and the state. In March, the Madison County Board will vote on the recommendation to change the property from residential-agricultural to residential resort or retail-business zoning. If the rezoning is approved for B & E Ventures, the development will include 700 housing units, retail space, small jet port, and sewage treatment plant.

The real estate development team of Orville English and Rick Bussey, also known as B & E Ventures, have already begun extensive mountain side resort development close to the new proposed rezoning site. The combined mountain village setting is known as Scenic Wolf and Breakaway.

For your information I am enclosing plats and photographs of these sites. You can see the steep terrain and the crowded homes that project off the mountainside slopes. As we all are aware the counties in Western North Carolina have suffered loss of life and serious damage due to flooding and landslides in the past two years. We also know that mountain slope development is a contributing factor to these events.

In order to safeguard the interests of everyone involved I propose that the state require all mountain counties to conduct hazard mitigation studies in these vulnerable mountain slope developments and that the real estate limited liability developers provide this information as a disclosure on the sales contract.

To compensate the county and the state for future environmental disasters the developers should also have to contribute a reasonable amount to a state risk fund. For example, 10% of their investment in the project.

Thank you for your interest in this challenging issue.


Lynne Vogel

Original letter posted on

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Watauga County Landslides-Property Condemnation

Plan view map of White Laurel subdivision showing debris flows (embankment failures) outlined in red. House on lot 547 (shown in blue) was destroyed; Red lot numbers indicate condemned homes; purple hachured lines indicate scarps; green lot numbers indicate homes with foundation cracks. Photographs show scarps and damage from embankment failures. The slope failures here appear to be related to cut-and-fill type construction on steep slopes. Photos compliments
North Carolina Geological Survey

Watauga County Landslides

Home destroyed by a debris slide-flow triggered by heavy rain
during Hurricane Frances. It does not require a large landslide to
cause considerable damage. This embankment failure that mobilized
into a debris flow is only about 125 feet long. photos compliments North
Carolina Geological Survey

Rutherford County Landslide

Home site embankment failure in the Peaks at Lake Lure
that mobilized into a debris flow during Hurricane Ivan.
Left: View looking upslope along track to initiation zone (red arrow).
Right: Logs and other woody debris within embankments do not contribute
to the long term stability of the embankment. Photos compliments North Carolina
Geological Survey

McDowell County Landslide

Debris flow scarps encroaching on a home in McDowell County. Deep soil characteristic of weathered carbonate rock of the Shady Dolomite is exposed in the scarps. Failure occurred during Hurricane Frances. photos compliments North Carolina Geological Survey

Madison County Landslide

Little Pine Debris Flow. A. Apparent initiation zone (road embankment) of Little Pine Debris Flow triggered by Hurricane Ivan. B. View down track scoured by debris flow. C. Barn destroyed by debris flow, out of view is a cabin damaged by the debris flow. Red arrow points to person for scale. Photos compliments of the North Carolina Geological Survey

Jackson County Airport Landslide

Jackson County Airport landslides threaten property owners.
Jackson County, North Carolina

"Local airport is once again at center of court battle" The Sylva Herald August 16, 2007. For additional information please visit

Henderson County Landslide

Left: View looking down the track of the Bear Rock
debris flow. Right: Initiation zone of debris flow where
the subdivision road crosses a drainage. Unstable slope
remains at the head of the debris flow. Multiple generations
of cracks in the pavement indicates road subsidence at this
location prior to the debris flow. Photos compliments of the North
Carolina Geological Survey

Monday, December 3, 2007

Haywood County Landslide

Enbankment failure that mobilized into a debris flow.
Rock baskets installed to reinforce the enbankment
appear to have been placed on unstable foundation
material. Photos compliments of the North Carolina Geological Survey

Burke County Landslide

Home destroyed by embankment failure/debris flow. The owner managed to leave the house after it was destroyed by the debris flow but spent the night outside during the storm.
photos compliments of the North Carolina Geological Survey

Buncombe County Landslide

Starnes Cove Home Destroyed by
Landslide. Resident was in the house at the
time and survived. The debris flow also
destroyed the garage of the house immediately
downstream. Photos compliments of the North Carolina
Geological Survey

The steep slopes and fragile soils of Western North Carolina
place Buncombe County at high risk of a landslide. Buncombe
County Hazard Mitigation Plan August 23, 2004

Sunday, December 2, 2007


North Carolina Legislators Study Landslides

In January 2007 a public safety bill was drafted in the North Carolina General Assembly to address dangerous building practices. The Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act was intended to (1) require local governments to adopt ordinances to regulate site-planning, design, and construction of artificial slopes in mountainous areas to promote safe and stable slopes for development and to reduce the likelihood of slope failures on developed or disturbed land, in order to protect human safety and property; and (2) to provide for disclosure of landslide hazards to purchasers of properties located in areas vulnerable to landslides as indicated on maps prepared by the North Carolina Geological Survey.

The Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act would have provided statewide slope construction standards for any area located on a mountain face or steep hillside that had a slope of 25% (14.03 degree grade) or greater or that was designated "moderate" to "high" landslide risk on a stability map prepared by the North Carolina Geological Survey.

Sponsors of the bill, Representatives Phil Haire, Ray Rapp, and Susan Fisher were advised in June that there would be no action and that their proposal was being sent to a study commission.

When Representative Haire was told that the bill would not be presented he said, "We've got statewide laws dealing with erosion, dealing with how to build a house, and we've got standards that deal with the safety of water. We're talking about safety, we're talking about the environment, we're talking about water quality. Article 5 of the state constitution charges us with conserving and protecting the land and water for the benefit of citizens. If we know we can do this we have to do this. If we permit development to go up those slopes without advising those people that they need to take additional measures, and that person loses their property or their life, we're not doing our job. 20 years ago we didn't have to do this, but now we do."

While North Carolina legislators delay controlling the actions of local governments, construction continues on landslide prone slopes. There are a few Western North Carolina municipalities that have strengthened their slope regulations but even these do not meet acceptable engineering and site planning requirements for hazardous land.

When a slope fails it is often considered a natural event but current technology and landslide maps provide a clear picture of where not to build. While the state studies these predictable regional hazards, local governments in Western North Carolina are allowing homes, roads, and resorts to be built on old landslide deposits, debris flows, and unsuitable soil.

Mountain settings give the impression of stability but they are in reality high risk building locations with no insurance protection.