Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Let It Slide...Asheville's Mountains and Hills are Sensitive to Development Activities

In September 2004 Buncombe County was declared a federal disaster area along with 14 other counties in the western region of the state. Twelve landslides were reported in Buncombe County. Two structures, one a home in Starnes Cove and the other a county fire department, were destroyed by landslides. In September 2004 Buncombe County and the City of Asheville became cognizant of the dangers of landslides.

The state notified Buncombe County and the City of Asheville in February 2005 that landslide mapping would be required to mitigate the possibility of future disasters. When Asheville City Council was advised that the land under their jurisdiction was hazardous, they had the authority to enact a moratorium on all slope development.

In the summer of 2006, after intense public criticism of increased mountain slope development and inadequate regulations, City Council authorized their Planning and Development staff to review current standards and to propose new rules.

On September 6, 2006 Scott Shuford, Planning and Development Director for the City of Asheville, released his report to the Planning and Zoning Commission regarding recommendations for new steep slope regulations.

Mr. Shuford stated in his report that the purpose of the Steep Slope and Ridgetop Overlay District was as follows:

" Asheville is in a unique geographic location where mountains, valleys, and hills constitute significant natural topographic features. The mountains and hillsides of Asheville are visible from many places in the city, adding to the quality of life for residents and improving tourism opportunities for visitors. These areas are sensitive to development activities and measures must be taken to maintain slope stability and to control erosion and stormwater. In order to ensure the preservation of the character and the appropriate use of hillsides, the regulations of this section are established to recognize that the development of land in steep or mountainous areas involves special considerations and unique development standards."

Residents of Asheville and potential buyers of mountain slope property should be able to understand the substance and the intent of the proposed regulations for steep slope development. There can be no language equivocation concerning the fact that much of the land in Buncombe County is at grave risk of slope failures. Future slope erosion and landslides pose serious problems for the city's infrastructure and will increase the risks for all those who live on or near mountain slopes. Advisory commissions, such as Planning and Development, have an obligation to clearly state the reasons for the proposed change in regulations. They also have a responsibility to counsel the governing body on the dire consequences of failure to adopt safe and enforceable regulations.

The Planning and Development report of 2006 should have stated the following:

State and federal agencies have determined that the mountains, valleys, and hills in Asheville are located in a high risk natural landslide hazard region. Buncombe County was declared a federal disaster area in 2004. Developers use of dynamite and bulldozers to create artificial building sites on unidentified and potentially unstable slopes can activate landslides and destabilize property surrounding the construction sites. Considering the possible catastrophic result of landslides and other environmental dangers, Asheville Planning and Development recommend a moratorium on all slope construction until completion of the Buncombe County landside maps. When the hazard maps are completed, the City will be able to use the "Is it Safe to Build Here" guidelines provided by the North Carolina Geologic Survey to review and revise regulations for slope development. Planning and Development propose that the city control and regulate all slope grades if geologic site specific studies show evidence that disturbance will precipitate landslides.

Like many communities, the City of Asheville promotes Smart Growth as an approach to development but expansion in Asheville requires the use of suspect land as a way of expanding its tax base. Safe Growth should be City Council's new development plan with all future planning dedicated to one purpose: protecting the lives and property of citizens in their jurisdiction.

How many development permits have been granted by the city since
September 2004 for homesites on likely unstable slopes? How many more will be allowed by Asheville City government before safe slope regulations are passed? The preliminary Buncombe County landslide hazard map (December 18, 2006) shows numerous landslide deposits and slopes at high risk for failure. Much of this mountainous terrain is currently under extensive residential development.

Injured parties suffering partial or total loss of their homes because of improper building on unstable slopes will look for relief. Insurance companies are not liable. All homeowner policies exclude coverage for earth movement damage.

Local governments can be held liable if their regulatory actions or inactions caused harm. The Supreme Court ruled in April of 2006 that local governments cannot automatically claim immunity. Developers, contractors, and real estate agencies are liable if they knew but did not disclose hazardous property conditions. Litigation will follow the next landslide disasters and those responsible for ensuring public safety will not be able to say that they would not advised.

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