Thursday, April 17, 2008

Landslide Studies Will Impact Western North Carolina Real Estate Values

Would property owners and prospective buyers prefer to know now, or in the future, that real estate values will be adversely affected by landslide probability maps?

The Western North Carolina federally mandated 2005 landslide mapping program “Is it safe to build here? was intended to stop the development and sale of hazardous land. But these non-regulatory studies have been ignored by developers and planning boards throughout the 21 county area. As a result thousands of homes have been built and are being constructed in unstable areas. There have been 6 recorded landslide fatalities since 2003.

Three landslide maps are now in the public domain. The hazard maps for Macon, Buncombe, and Watauga Counties show that hundreds of homes and private roads have been built on landslides, their deposits and unstable soils. Available soil surveys warn that the majority of slopes in Western North Carolina are “unsuitable” or “poorly suitable” for urban development.

In December 2007 the District of Northern Vancouver issued a geologic report disclosing the location of homes at risk of lethal landslides. The study identified 41 homes at high probability of slope failures. There are 29 other locations in the district yet to be investigated.

Sam Cooper’s article “Homeowners cry foul over DVN landslide risk report”, December 20, 2007 cannot be linked. The following is a copy of Mr. Cooper's report:

There’s plenty of discontent among 41 property owners labelled at-risk of landslides in a just-released DNV-commissioned study, says North Vancouver lawyer Jay Straith, who is still engaged in legal battles with the district in the aftermath of the January 2005 Seymour landslide tragedy.

In early December the district released a preliminary hazard study of Pemberton and Westlynn escarpments that pinpoints 12 areas with potential for lethal landslides, all of which have properties at the base of slopes, as was the case in Eliza Kuttner’s death in the Seymour slide. The remaining 29 possible risk areas have similar geotechnical concerns, but no residences at the base of slopes.

In response to the study district council asked staff to tackle similar preliminary hazard assessments for the Deep Cove/Cove Cliff, Riverside West, Mosquito Creek West, Capilano River East and Mount Fromme East areas, in 2008.

Since the Pemberton/Westlynn report was released Straith says he taken more than a few calls from affected homeowners interested in exploring legal options because of fears their properties are now devalued.

One of the property owners, who asked to withhold his name as he gets legal advice told The Outlook he thinks the district prematurely classed the 41 homes at risk and has unfairly left onus on the owners to address potential geotechnical issues, likely at high costs. He said the district should have approached individual homeowners with information before publishing the report. He added the district granted building permits in the first place, arguing they should chip in to address geotechnical issues.

In an interview DNV Mayor Richard Walton said he doesn’t doubt that real estate values will be affected by the report and others likely to follow across the district, but he maintained public safety trumps all other concerns.

Straith agreed, saying immediate disclosure of study information is the best policy.

Furthermore, he asserted if previous councils would have been as “proactive” with risk assessment policy as the current one, the Kuttner tragedy never would have happened.

Straith represents the Perrault family-whose home smashed down into two homes below it in the Seymour slide-and four other affected families in ongoing litigation including insurers and the District of North Vancouver.

Straith has argued the district knew the Seymour slide area had geotechnical issues, but didn’t take adequate steps to warn property owners. Now, he says it appears the district has “learned the lesson.”

“There’s a lot of unhappy campers out there (among the 41 homeowners affected in recent study),” Straith said. “They’re saying, What do we do now?”

“It’s a tough situation for people to be in, but the district is fulfilling its obligation… I know it’s politically tough but it’s the right thing to do legally and morally.”

Straith reiterated that he believes the provincial government should legislate for all available geotechnical risk information be tagged to land titles across the province, as is done in disaster-prone California.

“People are buying and selling properties with no disclosure of geotechnical issues,” he said. “(Landslide and other risk issues experienced in North Vancouver) is the tip of a very large iceberg going across the whole province.”

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