Federal Disaster Declarations Result in Landslide Hazard Studies
In September 2004 fifteen Western North Carolina counties were in a state of emergency after rain-initiated landslides caused loss of life and catastrophic damage. To fulfill federal hazard mitigation requirements, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized a 19 county landslide mapping program in February 2005. Governor Mike Easley stated in an October 2006 press release that
These (hazard) 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.The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported in October of 2006 that Buncombe and Watauga County landslide hazard maps would be released in the summer of 2007. Maps for Haywood, Henderson, and Jackson were to be published in 2008. To date only Watauga and Macon Counties have been surveyed.
Buncombe County Commissioners Facilitate Hazardous Land Development
In an effort to assuage criticism regarding mountain development, county commissioners passed new slope regulations in March of 2006 but left old rules in place until July 1. (“Builders rush to beat stricter slope rules,” John Boyle, Asheville Citizen-Times, July 2006).
Jim Anthony, President and CEO of The Cliffs Communities, was one of 23 developers who took advantage of the old-rule window. Anthony told the Asheville Citizen-Times that his company had requested the Cliffs at High Carolina subdivision permit in order to avoid the more stringent regulations. The Cliffs at High Carolina site, now at 3,200 acres, is the largest residential project in the county.
In December 2007 The Cliffs Communities, Inc. won a lawsuit they had filed against Buncombe County. At issue was the county regulation restricting the density of condominium or apartment complexes on steep mountain slopes. Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Ronald Payne ruled that The Cliffs Communities, Inc. did not have to comply with county rules. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that the Cliffs Communities, Inc acquired the land for a little over $45 million and have been working on the project since 2004. ("Cliffs can dodge building limits," Mark Barrett, Asheville Citizen-Times, January 12, 2008).
The Cliffs Communities, Inc. opened land sales for the Cliffs at High Carolina on November 8, 2008. Jim Anthony told the media that regarding sales “we’re past our expectations, with lot sales totaling more than $40 million."
Geologic Fact: If a Slope has Failed, It will Fail Again
Although Buncombe County hazard maps and the updated soil survey have not been officially released, preliminary investigations show that the High Carolina development site is threatened by landslides, unstable soils, and former debris flows.
The Cliffs Communities, Inc., like all Western North Carolina mountain developers, understand the reason for the "Is it safe to build here" hazard maps. The disturbing question is how can the Cliffs' contractors safely lay out roads and homesites when there are no landslide maps to follow?