Friday, February 15, 2008

"It's going to raise the cost of any kind of work by $2,000 to $5,000 just for a simple project." What is a fair price for safety?

In Western North Carolina safe slope ordinances are either nonexistent, or if enacted, are as irregular and fractured as the mountain landscape. The question before the North Carolina General Assembly: Do residents and prospective buyers deserve state regulation and control over the development and sale of hazardous land or should this issue be left to local planning

The North Carolina Geological Survey has discovered thousands of landslides and evidence of their destruction in the three counties that have been mapped. Building on landslides is an invitation to personal and financial disaster and no rational person would knowingly buy a home anywhere near an uncontrollable mountain slope. These dormant geologic formations will move, it's only a question of when.

Residents in the private Cedar Heights subdivision in Colorado Springs, Colorado know the consequences of building on hidden landslides. In 1980 when this slope side community was being developed, massive amounts of fill was placed over an existing landslide. Wet spring weather in 1995 and 1998 reactivated the landslide and caused extensive road damage. In 1998 geologic investigators found 2 more slide planes under the roadbed. Engineers and geologists have determined that the landslides under the road can not be stabilized. A real-time landslide monitoring system was installed to warn residents of the possibility of sudden earth movement.
"Landslide Monitoring and Emergency Notification System: Cedar Heights Subdivision, Colorado Springs, Colorado" Daniel D. Overton, Robert W. Schaut and Michael K. Lusk

Geologists Richard Giraud and Francis Ashland share graphic photos of property damage in their article "Another Year (2006) of Damaging Landslides in Northern Utah." According to their investigations, "Nearly all of the 2006 landslides were reactivations of pre-existing landslides, including slides that had previously moved sometime during the past decade."

"In the spring of 1999, heavy rain precipitated landslides in over 12 developed areas in Colorado Springs. The landslide damage and destruction exceeded $80 million dollars. A combined federal, state, and local response included active participation by property owners in an open and transparent public process. The resulting federally funded mitigation project was a success, but this can only be considered an interim objective for an inherent serious local problem. Colorado Springs is normally an arid environment but high moisture years like 1999, can result in activation of new landslides and reactivation of existing landslides. Residential neighborhoods continue to expand and encroach in areas where a combination of topography and the underlying Pierre Shale present significant long-term stability challenges." The 1999 Colorado Springs, Colorado Landslides-Federal, State and Local Government Response; Public Involvement; and Future Long-term Risks and Challenges. This abstract was written by Mark W. Squire, Squire Consulting Services, Inc. June 18-21, 2006

In the following article some local Asheville Realtors explain their reasons for opposing state regulation over the County's landslide prone slopes.

Asheville Citizen-Times February 11, 2008
"Study calls for slope rules" by Clarke Morrison

Asheville-Development on steep slopes should be regulated to protect homes and lives from landslides, according to a new study coordinated by the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.

The conclusions bolster the case for state rules requiring an evaluation of steeper slopes for stability before new construction is permitted, said state Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison.

Rapp said he plans to push for such regulations when the General Assembly reconvenes in May, even though an earlier version did not pass last year.

"The whole idea behind this bill is to protect human safety and property," he said.

But Rapp's critics cite onerous business costs of regulation and say slope rules should be the purview of local, not state, officials.

Bill Eaker, an environmental planner with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, said his group isn't taking a position on the Artificial Slope Construction Act, the bill introduced in the House last year by Rapp and Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson. The council is a quasi-governmental entity.

But the slopes study, which isn't final, says government should take steps to ensure that construction on steep slopes is done in a way that prevents damage from landslides.

An expert panel developed the recommendations following a series of community input sessions held over the past year, Eaker said.

The debate

Rapp cited a report by the N.C. Geological Survey, which said that intense rainfall from the remnants of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan in September 2004 triggered at least 145 landslides in Western North Carolina, causing five deaths and destroying 27homes.

Four homeowners in the Hunters Crossing condominiums in Haywood County were forced from their homes in 2005 after the structures were condemned because of severe damage caused by a slow moving landslide.

But Rep. Mitch Gillespie said it should be up to local governments to decide whether to regulate construction on steep slopes. And having to hire an engineer to evaluate slope stability and recommend an appropriate design would be too burdensome and costly for developers and homebuyers, the McDowell Republican said.

"It's going to raise the cost on any kind of work by $2,000 to $5,000 just for a simple project," Gillespie said.

Mike Butrum, a local real estate broker, said he opposes the bill because it would increase the cost of housing, which is already among the highest in the state.

"Even though we had a 14 percent decrease in homes sales in Buncombe County last year, average prices went up 7 percent," said Butrum, governmental affairs director of the Asheville Board of Realtors.

Reese Lasher, developer of Crest Mountain Communities, said it should be up to local governments to decide whether regulations on steep slope development are needed because the terrain varies from county to county.

"I prefer the local approach rather than a state mandate," he said.

County Regulations

Buncombe, Haywood, and Jackson counties have adopted steep slope rules.

Buncombe's ordinance limits the density of development with grades of 25 percent or greater.

"We want to make sure mountainsides do not get deforested to the greatest extent possible," said county planner Jim Coman. Deforested slopes are more prone to landslides, he said

Rapp's original bill would have required counties to have rules applying to slopes of 25 percent or greater, while his latest proposal would target slopes of 40 percent or greater.

It also would mandate that counties regulate development on areas deemed prone to slides under a mapping program to identify such areas under way by the N. C. Geological Survey.

The 2005 Hurricane Recovery Act required the mapping program, said Rick Wooten, a geologist with the agency.

The mapping has been completed for Macon and Watauga counties, and the maps for Buncombe should be finished later this year.

But it will be at least another five years before all mountain communities are mapped, and the effort relies on continued funding, Wooten said.

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