Western North Carolina Landslides
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
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.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Colorado Springs Independent
The politics of landslides-and building on landslides -in Colorado Springs
by Bob Campbell
August 16, 2000:
According to Noe, the 1996 Geologic Hazards Ordinance was a huge step forward toward achieving a workable equilibrium between private property rights and public safety. Aspects of that ordinance, however, haven't sat well with the Housing and Business Association of Colorado Springs.
In a July 29, 1999 letter to City Planning, then HBA president complained that sending development proposals to the Colorado Springs Geologic Survey "bring[s] the state government into the local planning process." This is an uncalled-for intervention, said Wiepking, because the Regency Ridge landslide disaster was "an isolated incident" that affected only "a couple of homes in a hillside area."
Current HBA president Steve Wills agrees. "The Geologic Hazards Ordinance is fine as it is," he said. Strengthening it would only create "further levels of government."
"It's not the government's job to take care of every problem," Wills insisted. "There'll always be people who say the sky is falling and demand more laws, but it's not the job of the government to police every problem under the sun."
A growing number of geologists and public safety advocates, however, complain that the regulatory constraints of the Geologic Hazards Ordinance are too easily sidestepped. One of these critics is local geologist John Himmelreich, a member of the State Hazards Mitigation Team and the legislative and regulatory affairs chairman for the Association of Engineering Geologists.
A repository of information about development issues in Colorado Springs, Himmelreich notes that hillside development can be enormously lucrative. People with money want homes in scenic locales with spectacular views, and some of the most resplendent housing in Colorado Springs is situated in hillside subdivisions rife with geologic hazards. A home recently built on a local landslide area is valued just shy of $1 million.
For developers of such locales, the identification of geologic hazards is never good news. "It means that much less buildable acreage, and hazards mitigation always costs money that would not be otherwise be spent," said Himmelreich.
"Developers, meanwhile, are shrewd businessmen out to protect their investment. Every increase in regulation is that much less freedom to pursue a profit. It's as sound a business practice for them to seek out regulatory loopholes as it is for a corporation to take advantage of tax loopholes."
Given the big bucks at stake, developers often take to playing what Himmelreich calls "the development game," shopping around for "hired guns"--geotechnical and soils engineers willing to cut a corner here and leave a disadvantageous fact out there to deftly contour their soils and geotechnical reports in compliance with their clients' needs.
One of the things making it possible for developers to "shop around" like this is that the city does not have a staff geologist qualified to put soils and geotechnical reports to technical review.
City civil engineer Robin Kidder concedes the city does no technical reviewing. "It's kind of a trust issue, he explained. "We rely on the expertise and integrity of the consultants. All we do is make sure that all the required reports are included, and that the reports address the hazards that the city is aware of."
The city sends a fraction --about 10%--of its soils and engineering reports to CGS for technical review. CGS, however, does not accept the expertise or integrity of consultants on trust, and it is the close scrutiny of these reports--many the work of "hired guns"-- that some local developers characterize as "second guessing."
A modest proposal
Himmelreich and colleagues Don Coates and Jim Frobieter argue that the city could achieve a better balance between private property and public safety by making a few changes in its procedures for approving development proposals.
Coates is retired from the U. S. Geologic Survey and is now a local consultant who teaches at UCCS. Frohbieter is a geologist with Soils and Testing Engineering, Inc.
Geologic hazards will always be with us, and developments built on them will continue to fail, but the vast majority of the destruction and home loss could be eliminated, they say, were the city to:
Adopt HB-1041, 1970s State legislation designed to regulate hillside development, among other things. Springs leaders opted not to adopt 1041 because they viewed it as a threat to their home-rule powers, but adoption would allay the city's "inordinate fear" of lawsuit because it would provide the statutory authority necessary for regulating hillside development.
Require a series of "certifications of completion" signatures from developers and builders on every project. The developer would guarantee by each signing off that all the recommendations made in the soils and geologic hazards reports were carried out exactly and all the recommended mitigation's fully implemented. (Presently, developers are on their honor to do these things; the city doesn't do the inspections needed to verify compliance.)
Hire at least one (preferably more) full-time geologist qualified to perform technical reviews both on paper and in the field.
Rewrite the Geologic Hazards Ordinance of present to replace every "guideline" with a concrete minimum standard. "The present wording has too many 'may bes' and 'should bes,'" says Himmelreich. "There's too much wiggle-room."
Require developers to make full, up front disclosure to homebuyers of all hazards, risk-assessments, recommendations and mitigation associated with that property and structure.
City engineer Kidder agrees with several of the points made by the geologists.
"We do a pretty good job from the paper side," said Kidder, "but we're a little weak in the field. We don't do follow-up inspections to make sure that every avoidance and mitigation recommendation is followed. However, we have a request in City Council for another full-time field person who would do verification."
Kidder said he's also requested funding to develop a Web site that would consolidate "all the standard references--coal mine maps, landslide maps, all the stuff geologists use as starting points--and make them available in one spot for anybody's use."
Kidder agrees that Colorado Springs governance has always tilted lopsidedly toward nonregulation and pro-growth.
"Developers," he said , "are coming from the attitude where 'You're not going to tell me what to do with my land,' and yet they sell that land, and you have unsuspecting customers buying these homes and thinking they're going to be safe for a hundred years. And then those homes start to move."
"The people left with them are devastated. They can't live in them, they've lost all their equity, they have nowhere to turn."
Kidder believes, finally, that the city of Colorado Springs is decades behind other Colorado cities in dealing with this problem. "Adoption of HB-1041, he says "is way, way overdue."
"We had the potential to adopt it  years, but the conservative politics of this town weigh heavily in favor of land development and non-regulation. We're a good 10 to 15 years behind the rest of the state in terms of our regulatory controls and enforcement. Other areas in the state do far more than we're doing to protect the consumer."
Meanwhile, 4270 Regency Drive, where the Garrison dream home once stood, is now only a foundation and cracked concrete floor. The house was razed in 1996 and the Garrisons have moved out of state.
The problem continues, meanwhile. A July 24, 2000 letter from David Noe to Donna Fair reports that a landslide-hazard assessment found that a house "located immediately west of downtown Colorado Springs" at the base of a steep 20 foot-hill has suffered severe landslide damage and is subject to "a potentially dangerous and life-threatening situation for the occupants of the house, as well as for drivers on Communication Circle."
"Abandoning the house," Noe concluded, "would address the immediate danger."
The following press release was sent to City of Asheville Councilmember Carl Mumpower on July 13, 2007:
Press Release: Mountain Air Resort Landslide Alert
Mountain Air, the nationally known Burnsville, North Carolina resort community, is being sued by a group of property owners whose condominium units have been damaged by slope failures,
In 2003 the foundations of two of the five Austin View Villas began cracking and by late 2004 the foundations of the building began "sliding" down their steep embankment causing extreme structural instability. According to court documents the Villas have been uninhabitable since early 2005, (07 CvS 19). Current tax records show the value of each of the units to be $640,000.
A similar complaint was filed against Mountain Air Development Corporation by the Hemlock Bluff Villas Condominium Association, Inc. for damages caused by a landslide. The Hemlock Bluff units are adjacent to the Austin View Villas and in August 2004, two of the condo building were severely damaged by slope failures. This case has been settled out of court,(06 CvS 51).
On June 20, 2007 the Mountain Air Development Corporation placed a half page advertisement in the real estate section of The Wall Street Journal introducing the sale of their newest mountain slope properties...Settlers Edge offers unbelievable views...the Settlers Edge opportunity is very limited...just 16 spectacular homesites, 11 mountaintop estate homes, and 38 condominium homes. Readers of the Mountain Air promotion will find no mention that the property being marketed is in a high risk natural hazard area and that property owners in the resort have experienced landslide property damage.
Mountain slope property is Western North Carolina's most important salable asset. Unfortunately all of this real estate is in a state designated high risk natural landslide hazard region, (1998 Report/North Carolina Department of Emergency Management). Developers know that old landslide deposits and unstable soils are common geologic hazards and they profit on their ability to site and sell homes in these locations without state regulation and without client disclosure of property risks.
The financial risks for those who live on or near unstable slopes can be extreme. In North Carolina there is no insurance coverage available to protect homes and property from landslide damage regardless of the cause. Insurance companies know from experience that landslide events are predictable and costly and they will not insure this risk.
For more information about the Mountain Air lawsuits please visit http://www.wncsos.com/.
Councilmember Mumpower's response on July 13, 2007:
Thank you for this. It remains that there have been no slides in Asheville City and the statistical significance of the number of slope issue incidents across WNC are so limited as to be statistically insignificant. It is my personal sense that government should be responding to the horses and not the zebras and that Asheville's draconian steep slope ordinances are a special interest indulgence.
It is my continuing belief that safety issues are being highlighted and exaggerated as a means to the deeper agenda of protecting views and impairing growth. Although I understand the agenda, I would question the ethics of the method and the intrusion represented in trying to artificially control property we do not own.
That said, I do not personally not note significant safety (the slide is to slow) or economic risks for the property owners you mention. Million dollar summer homes imply the capacities to assume the measured risks of building where you have access to those expensive views.
Colorado Springs Independent
The politics of landslides-and building on landslides-in Colorado Springs
by Bob Campbell
August 16, 2000:
It's the customer's problem
Noe's observations about Springs development politics were voiced in remarkably similar fashion in a 1985 study by the UCCS Department of Geography and Environment.
This publication, "Environmental Hazards:Colorado Springs, Colorado," documents a long-standing history of pretending that we don't have geologic hazards, of regulating hillside development in the most minimal-fashion, and of either "watering down" or failing to enforce what regulations are on the books.
"The attitude of some public officials in Colorado Springs is ambivalent at best," the study observes. "Official policy leans toward caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) when possible hazards exist."
It's not as though public officials haven't had access to needed information. Since 1968, a slew of published studies have identified and discussed landslide sites in greater Colorado Springs.
The problem, according to the '85 UCCS report, is a tendency for Springs policymakers to ignore or plead ignorance of these studies. "The prevailing philosophy appears to be that if an assessment of the hazards ...is not available, then it follows that Colorado Springs has few natural or technological hazards to worry about."
An afternoon's perusal of city records will turn up numerous instances of this "ambivalent at best" attitude--as in a Jan. 27, 1998 letter from former city attorney Jim Colvin (he had retired only weeks earlier) to Richard Young of the law firm Holme Roberts & Owens.
(Colvin's letter is of particular relevance to this story because it was written as expert witness testimony on behalf of Gates Land Co. which was being sued by Ken Garrison, the Regency Drive homeowner.)
Garrison was suing Gates for failure to disclose that his property was situated on a landslide and unfit for traditional construction. Colvin, who was city attorney from 1971 to 1998 and its top legal advisor for 16 of those years, testified for Gates, who developed the Garrison property on a locale identified in previous geologic studies as a landslide and/or "unstable slope" area. (The suit was settled confidentially, out of court.)
In his testimony for Gates, Colvin professes that he was unaware during his tenure as city legal counsel of any of the geologic reports that map landslide areas in Colorado Springs. As City Attorney," he said, "I normally would have been aware of maps showing landslides, but from 1971 until 1995 I was not aware of any USGS or other maps showing an ancient landslide in the area."
Asked about this in a recent interview, Colvin said that the city did a geologic study as a result of the 1973 legislation requiring each city to identify mineral deposits in its community. "We had those studies done," said Colvin, "and they did not show ancient landslide areas. They showed areas of talis--the crumbly stuff that results from mountain erosion--but they didn't show that they were potential landslides. I was unaware of any other studies showing ancient landslides."
Compare this assertion to an assessment of the Garrison landslide by Michael West, one of Colorado's foremost landslide experts. West notes that the landslide complex that destroyed Garrison's home "was identified by the USGS prior to construction of the homes on Regency Drive," and that information about the landslide "was disseminated through published geologic maps available to geotechnical engineers, engineering geologists, developers, local government agencies and the general public."
According to West, the Garrison site should not have been built on. "Construction of permanent, habitable housing in a landslide complex involves high risk of renewed movement and structural damage," and "prudent engineering practice would [generally] dictate avoidance of known landslide areas as permanent building sites."
"Even...after the [Garrison ] property landslide," said Colvin, the City declined to bar construction "in identified ancient landslides, because as a matter of public policy they have determined that no such prohibition is warranted."
Asked why the city didn't consider landslides a cause for concern, Colvin said in an interview last week he considered the Regency Ridge area more of a "soils condition" problem than a landslide concern. "You don't have a landslide until you put weight on it and somebody sprinkles the ground and you create a slippery slope."
"I think it's interesting that this year, without the moisture, we haven't had any landslide problems," he continued. "We only have those problems in the years we get a lot of moisture, and that tells me that it's more of a soils condition problem than a landslide issue. Soils conditions can be dealt with with proper engineering."
Above all, don't get sued
An example of how the private/property/public safety debate drives decision making in Colorado Springs governance can be seen in an agenda item in the Oct.7, 1999 meeting of the Colorado Springs Planning Commission.
On this occasion, the Commission was considering approval of a 16.5 acre development in the Pinecliff community that contains a landslide area. Colvin, who represented the would-be developer of this property at this meeting, insisted that the city had no right to deny his client approval. Paul Tice, who spoke in his capacity as city planner, said the city should not let houses be put on a known landslide site.
Colvin in his argument returns again and again to the fact that the city is liable to a "takings" lawsuit if approval is denied. ("Takings" is a legal concept involving denial of property rights without just compensation.)
"The city has been very successful in avoiding liability for geologic disasters to date [by using] a "buyer beware" attitude," Colvin argued. "Requiring geologic studies is one thing, but for staff to take those studies and restrict where people can and cannot build homes makes the city liable as does geologic disasters."
Planning staff are "sticking their necks out," Colvin warned, if they make geologic hazards a basis for "telling [developers] where they can and cannot build."
Kent Petre, president of Development Management, Inc. the property's would-be developer agreed with Colvin at the Oct.7 meeting. "Staff's position," he insisted, "should be to note that a geologic study has been done and where it's available for public review, but not to determine where the lines are drawn for buildable or unbuildable areas."
Tice countered Colvin and Petre with the argument that the Geologic Hazard Ordinance requires the applicant to identify geologic hazards and then "design the project around those hazards, preferably by avoiding them."
"If a hazard is identified," said Tice, "staff would expect the project design to reflect that no construction would occur in unstable slope areas."
The comments of the Planning Commissioners closely parallel those of Colvin and Tice.
Commissioner Zane Bowers sided with Colvin, stating that city staff's recommendation to avoid construction on the unstable slope area constitutes "a taking of private property; there's no two ways about it."
Commissioner Tracy Nelson, however sided with Tice, arguing that avoidance of geologic hazards on behalf of public safety is a legitimate basis for denying approval.
"Approval of a development plan, he said, "infers to the property buyer that the lot approved is buildable. I wish we [the Planning Commission] could rely on the professional engineers and builders to do the right thing, but unfortunately that doesn't always happen. Sometimes they intentionally ignore the hazards, which I know for a fact happens all the time."
Colvin maintains his position today. "As soon as you tell a developer you can't build somewhere, on the basis that you've reviewed their geologic hazards study, he said in a recent interview, "you've opened yourself up to major big time liability."
"You can always take the position, Colvin continued, "that you don't want any development to occur anywhere where there might be a chance of hazard. That's a zero-risk mentality and you don't get very far with a zero-risk mentality. That means you don't let people drive cars because there might be accidents."
To be continued...
Colorado House Bill 1041 (1974) defines a geologic hazard as "...a geologic phenomenon which is so adverse to past, current, or foreseeable construction or land use as to constitute a significant hazard to public health and safety or to property.
In North Carolina there is no statute recognizing the dangers of geologic hazards.
In June 2006 Buncombe County received applications for 23 major subdivisions encompassing more than 3000 acres of mountain slope development. Some of these applications were for High Carolina (1284 acres), Brittain Knob (279 acres), Phoenix Cove (73 acres), and Town Mountain Cove (175 acres). When this land is added to the approved and on going mountain resort development projects such as Reynolds Mountain, The Settings, Versant, Crest Mountain and Southcliff thousands of homes will have been built on landslide prone slopes.
The Buncombe County Hazard Mitigation Plan (August 23, 2004) determined that the steep slopes and fragile soils of Western North Carolina place Buncombe County at high risk of landslides. This report was issued just weeks before the catastrophic slope failures of September 2004.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
On September 16, 2004 Macon County, North Carolina was in a state of emergency as were 14 other counties in the western region of the state. "The Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005" found that:
People lost their loved ones, their homes, sources of livelihood, and, in some instances, their communities. During Hurricane Ivan, the community of Peeks Creek was devastated by a debris flow triggered by the heavy rains. The debris flow traveled speeds as great as 33 miles per hour for two and a quarter miles from the top of Fishhawk mountain. Five persons were killed and 15 homes destroyed by the flow that was estimated to be several hundred feet wide and up to 40 feet high.... Further, people could not know the landslide risks associated with their housing location because such maps are not readily available. The State needs to...prepare landslide zone mapping for the region so that homes may be rebuilt in safe areas.
On October 3, 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. The "Is it safe to build or buy here" maps for Macon County show historic landslide events, attempt 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."
As Governor Easley states: landslide mapping provides critical information to all parties involved in the regulation, development, and purchase of hazardous land.
Starting in the fall of 2006, residents and prospective buyers should have been apprised of the now identified high risk real estate designations within Macon County's jurisdiction.
J. W. Williamson, of Wataugawatch, asks a pertinent and worrisome question. "So far, what has Macon County government done with those (landslide) maps? Word is that they've essentially hidden them from the public. The Macon County Commission have evidently expressed fear that if they release the information of potential landslide hazards to the public, they might get sued...because, you know, information just gets people upset (the truth sets the fees, so to speak). Go to the official Macon County website and look for any evidence that its slopes have ever been mapped and evaluated according to the best scientific evidence for life-and home-destroying potential. Go on. I dare you. You won't find a word." Please see "Landslide Hazards in Watauga County." January 23, 2008
If you do visit the Macon County website you will find the following reassuring words from the Planning Department. "Our mission is to serve the people of Macon County by: "Applying land use regulations in a way that promotes the health and public safety of our citizens."
Who is right? The planning board who continues to permit the undisclosed development of hazardous slopes or state geologists who warn that the Macon County hazard maps show mountainous terrain at serious risk of future devastating landslides.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Colorado Springs Independent
The politics of landslides-and building on landslides-in Colorado Springs
by Bob Campbell
August 16, 2000:
Until the heavy rains of May 1995, life looked pretty rosy for Ken Garrison and his wife, Ann.
The couple lived in a four-level dream home in Regency Ridge, a ritzy hillside subdivision in the Cheyenne Mountain area of Colorado Springs.
Above them to the west loomed Cheyenne Mountain and the foothills. Below, to the north, the lake and golf course of the Colorado Springs Country Club receded into the green distance--a pricey panorama in an idyllic setting.
Then came May of ' 95. It rained daily May 16-21, dumping 1.85 inches on May 17 alone. As related in a legal deposition, on May 22, Garrison began noticing cracks in his walls and floors, and in the asphalt driveway of his next door neighbor.
At around 10:15 the night of May 28, he heard a "a large pop" and felt the house shudder. He climbed out of bed to investigate, but a cursory tour of the house revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
Garrison found the source of that pop-and-shutter the next morning. The concrete floor of his basement had cracked like a saltine. Within two weeks, the crack was a foot wide, and a crack in his yard expanded into a three-to seven foot cavern. His dining room and living room "began to slant noticeably to the south."
To their dismay, the Garrisons were told by structural and geotechnical engineers they'd called to the scene that their home sits atop a slow-moving deposit of soil - in geologic terms a "landslide" --that was twisting and crumpling their house.
Dismay escalated into anguish when they discovered their homeowners insurance doesn't cover damage from landslides or other soil movements.
"Check over your homeowner's insurance policy," said Garrison in a 1996 interview. You'll find that it doesn't cover any kind of earth movement--earth quake, slope slump, downslope creep, debris flow, whatever you call it. There's not a house in Colorado Springs that's covered for landslide damage."
Things went downhill fast.
By mid-June, the city condemned the house. In the short space of seven weeks, the Garrison's dream home turned into an uninhabitable, uninsured and unsellable nightmare.
Prey for rain
The Garrisons are far from alone in their plight. That same landslide destroyed or seriously damaged six homes on the 4200 block of Regency Drive and vicinity, and it now endangers houses on streets above and below it.
In the nearby Boardmoor area, some of the priciest homes in Colorado Springs sit atop a 200-acre landslide that stretches east from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to across Broadmoor South Golf Course in the upscale Marland Court neighborhood.
Landslide activity there has produced cracked roadways, leaning trees, buckled tennis courts and driveways, bent fences, and windows and doors that no longer shut flush. Two homes have been condemned and at least 12 more are threatened.
But southwestern Colorado Springs is not the sole area where landslides are pleating homes like accordions. David Noe of the Colorado Geologic Survey says that "as many as 5000 homes, many in the $500,000-and up price range, have been built in Colorado Springs on potentially unstable, landslide-susceptible hillsides."
State geologists have identified at least eight such locales throughout town--three in the Cheyenne Mountain area(Penhurst Place, Regency Drive, Marland Court), three in the Garden of the Gods vicinity (Holland Park, Honey Locust, Friendship Lane) one in Rockrimmon(Spring Creek Court) and one in Pinecliff (Haverhill Place).
Donna Fair, who heads the city Office of Emergency Management, says that at least 62 Colorado Springs homeowners have suffered anywhere from $40 million to $88 million in damage from moving soils, but the actual numbers could be far higher. Many victims keep their plight mum out of fear for their property values.
This, however, hasn't deterred the city from continuing to approve developments on known landslide terrain.
As recently as May 23, City Council approved construction of eight luxury homes on Maytag Acres on top of a landslide adjacent to the Marland landslide--this despite cautions by state geologists in a Feb. 15 technical review of the project. "We remind the city," the geologists noted, "that this property is landslide-susceptible area and risks of activation of this dormant landslide, while low, are real."
Such cautions are nothing new. A 1974 study, partly financed by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, identified landslide sites throughout Colorado Springs and specifically recommended that "building and road construction be prohibited in landslide hazard areas."
It is here, in fact, that our tale lies. The City of Colorado Springs has a long-standing history of reluctance both to heed expert recommendations and to establish and enforce regulations that would have prevented homeowner loss and landslide debacles like those on Regency Drive, but would have imposed regulatory constraints on immensely lucrative hillside development.
That reluctance has diminished somewhat in the past couple of years, particularly on the part of city officials, and notably after another round of 22 landslide casualties following the spring rains of 1999.
"We don't have to keep repeating the mistakes of the past," said Councilwoman Judy Noyes, commenting on the Maytag decision, which she reluctantly approved. "I don't think it's wrong to declare certain areas unfit for human habitation. I know that's not a popular stance in this town, but there are times when we just have to say that maybe this isn't a good idea."
Private property and public safety
Colorado law defines a geologic hazard as "a geologic phenomenon which is so adverse to...construction or land use as to constitute a significant hazard to public health and safety or to property." One of the chief geologic hazards in hill-abundant, mountainside Colorado Springs is landslide:the movement of a mass of rock, earth, or debris down a slope.
The explosive population growth of recent decades has triggered an intense ideological and economic struggle over how much and in what way to regulate development on geographically hazardous terrain.
On one side of this debate are champions of the absolute private property rights. This camp --primarily developers, builders, realtors, and various agents of the "growth industry"--passionately opposes any attempt to strengthen regulation of hillside development.
On the other side are state geologists and public safety and consumer protection advocates. This camp has pushed long and hard for more thorough and stringent regulation to ensure safe hillside development and protection of homeowners.
These camps, of course, are not diametrically opposed, but Colorado Springs has historically downplayed the "public health and safety" part of the equation in favor of a pro-growth orientation that favors private property rights. When it hasn't sided with developers outright, the city has taken a hands-off laissez-faire, buyer beware stance, claiming the problem to be a private sector matter between developers, builders, and homebuyers.
David Noe, chief of engineering geology at the Colorado Geologic Survey, the state agency tasked with evaluating the accuracy and adequacy of developmental proposals for projects in geographically hazardous areas, is familiar with the city of Colorado Springs' position.
The agency rarely crossed paths with Colorado Springs until 1996, when the city passed the Geologic Hazards Ordinance in the wake of the Regency Ridge landslide debacle.
That ordinance requires a soils analysis and geologic hazards study of every building site, and a design plan for mitigation of any hazards. The city has no one on staff qualified to do technical reviews, and sends about one in ten of the proposals it receives up to CGS to do this review.
Noe praises the passage of the Geologic Hazards Ordinance as "a major step forward for protecting Colorado Springs homebuyers from Regency Ridge-type tragedies." It has created friction, however, between his office and the Springs development community. "It put developers accustomed to a lot of power and latitude into a unfamiliar position," he explained. "For the first time, the soils and engineering studies written up by their consultants were subjected to the close scrutiny of independent experts."
Noe says the CGS gets pretty good cooperation from most Colorado communities.
But with Colorado Springs, it's a different story.
"There's been quite a backlash down there against the Geologic Hazards Ordinance," said Noe. "That community, frankly, has been difficult to deal with."
Noe likens the attitude of the Springs development community to "a kid who completes his math assignment but doesn't want it to be graded. and then complains that he's being second-guessed if the teacher disagrees with his solution to a problem."
This seems an apt analogy for a March 6, 1998 letter to head city planner Quinn Peitz that was signed by a group of frontline local developers including representatives from Berry & Boyle, Cog Land & Development (the development arm of the Broadmoor hotel), Elite Properties (Houck Estate, The Reserve), Gates Land Company, La Plata (Briargate), and Nor'wood and Schuck Communities (Cedar Heights, Mountain Shadows, Stratton Estates).
These developers asked Peitz to stop using Colorado Springs Survey for technical reviewing because their privately hired soils and geotechnical consultants "are having their professional judgement and conclusions routinely second-guessed by someone at CGS." The state agency's recommendations against development on certain high-risk properties, they complained, "have precluded [us from] building on parcels worth millions of dollars."
Noe says there's another side to this "second guessing" however. "Developers from that community frequently use engineers with little or no geologic training to study very complicated geologic situations," he said. "We get a higher than normal number of reports from Colorado Springs that either don't contain enough information or have analysis or conclusions we don't agree with."
"But when we find problems with some of these reports from the Springs," Noe continued "they dig in their heels and fight suggestions or calls for new information. The developers and consultants argue that we don't know what we are talking about, and we try to reiterate why we think our objections are important, and it doesn't go anywhere. It's been very argumentative down there."
Noe contends the city chain of command needs to buy more fully into the Geologic Hazards Ordinance from bottom to top. CGS needs the backing of city planning and engineering, which needs the backing of head planner Peitz and head engineer Gary Haynes. Peitz and Haynes, meanwhile need the backing of City Manager Jim Mullen who needs the backing of City Council.
Noe attributes the Springs muddle in large part to a fundamental clash of orientations between private property rights and public safety. Colorado law holds landslides to be a significant hazard to public health and safety," but Colorado Springs has tended to emphasize private property rights and view regulatory constraint as a threat to those rights.
"That's a big issue throughout Colorado, not just Colorado Springs," he said. "Colorado Springs has tended to emphasize private property rights and view regulatory constraint as a threat to those rights.
That's a big issue throughout Colorado, not just Colorado Springs," he said. "Colorado Springs, though, seems inordinately afraid of lawsuits. I suspect it has a lot to do with the power of the development community in that town."
"The landslide epidemic of 1995, however, forced policy makers up there to take a closer look at the public safety side of the equation," Noe concluded. "Ignoring geologic hazards won't make them go away. You simply can't let development occur in a manner that will be harmful to tenants down the line."
To be continued...
Newcomers to the City of Asheville and Buncombe County should take a close look at the Buncombe County landslide map. This map shows mountain slopes at grave risk of landslides. Much of this mountainous terrain is currently under development for residential and resort sales. The City of Asheville and Buncombe County do not have a Geologic Hazards Ordinance and there is no requirement for a soils analysis and site specific study for the county's hazardous land.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
The City of Colorado Springs experienced major growth during the 1990s. As a result, development pushed into landslide prone areas. The following report by the Colorado Geological Survey illustrates the disastrous consequences of building homes on, near or below landslide deposits.
MAPPING AREAS OF LANDSLIDE SUSCEPTIBILITY IN COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO
David C. Noe, Jonathan L. White, and T.C. WaitThe City of Colorado Springs lies at the boundary between the Great Plains and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The western part of the city occupies a series of foothills and mesas that are susceptible to landslides. Colorado's second-largest city has undergone dramatic population growth during the 1990s, fueled by the growth of high-tech electronics industries. Western Colorado Springs, with its hilly terrain and postcard-like vistas, has become a desirable place to live for this affluent populace. Accordingly, mesa-top and hillside subdivisions and view lots are in high demand, land prices have skyrocketed, and there is an on going pressure to build in these problematic areas. The landslide hazard became apparent during the early and middle 1990s, when several older landslides apparently reactivated due to the combined effects of slope modification, turf irrigation, and wet winters. In the spring of 1999, a multiple-day rain event brought widespread landsliding to dozens of areas in the city, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damage and a federal disaster declaration by FEMA. The city, assisted by FEMA and the Colorado Geological Survey(CGS), conducted a multi-million dollar relief program in which over 25 landslide affected houses were purchased and razed.
Beginning in 1995, the City of Colorado Springs has called on CGS to assist them with critical landslide issues. A multifaceted approach has resulted, consisting of technical assistance (providing expert, third-part reviews of geologic and engineering reports for the city planning department), education (hosting local workshops on geologic hazards), and mapping.
The mapping piece involves creating basic and hazard-specific geologic maps that can be used as information sources by all stakeholders, to aid in decision-making processes. The basic mapping program began in 1999, and is ongoing. It involves the geologic mapping of nine, 1:24,000-scale quadrangles in the greater Colorado Springs area, under the auspices of the STATEMAP program. These maps emphasize the bedrock and superficial geology, including mappable landslide deposits. In addition, the CGS is completing hazard-specific maps of landside susceptibility, funded by the city and FEMA. Because the two mapping programs are coincident, there has been much sharing of information by the mapping and engineering geologists to ensure that the information shown on both maps is consistant.
The landslide susceptibility map contains an inventory of known landslides from various published and unpublished sources. The susceptible areas include all areas having a similar geologic setting with the inventoried landslides. These areas were delineated using historic landslide data, geomorphic features, bedrock geology as shown in the basic geologic mapping, slope, and aspect. In particular, landslide prone areas exist on slopes with grades greater than 12%(7), underlain by weak, clay-bearing formations such as the Cretaceous Pierre Shale. The main purpose of the landslide susceptibility map is disclosure. The existence of a susceptible area signifies that further investigation is needed in order to evaluate the site-specific landslide hazard. A 1:12,000-scale, GIS version of this map has been delivered to the city planning department and a 1:24,000-scale, hard-copy version for public sale is nearly completed.
The Colorado Geological Survey's report contains photographs and maps.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Mountain Slope Resort Development in Mars Hill, North Carolina
The mountain slopes of Western North Carolina are being cleared for expansive resort development. Will these activities weaken the landslide prone slopes of Western North Carolina?
In early December 2007, storms hit Southwest Washington. Barren mountain slopes collapsed, triggering massive landslides in the Stillman Creek area of the state. A little more than three years earlier the Weyerhaeuser Company had received state permission to clear cut 106 acres on a slope facing the creek that was the site of the catastrophic mudslides.
During a state Senate committee meeting January 10, 2008, University of Washington professor David Montgomery told the members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, "As a geologist I see no surprises here. When you clear-cut potentially unstable slopes, you increase the risk of landslides up to tenfold." Timber industry officials defended logging practices in the Willapa and Chehalis river basins, blaming the mass wasting of soil and trees on a freakish amount of snow, rain, and wind over a three-day period. Please see John Dodge's article "Logging officials defend practices" in The Olympian, January 11, 2008.
For additional information about clear cutting on unstable slopes please see
"Mudslide photo spurs look at logging practices, " Seattle Times, December 17, 2007.
According to Tyler Clark, chief geologist with the North Carolina Geological Survey, "There have been landslides in the North Carolina mountains since prehistoric times, but now more people are vulnerable because more people are choosing to live in areas that may be prone to landslides. When you add to that hurricanes or other storms that could start a landslide you have a really dangerous situation."
"Our studies of landslides across North Carolina over the last year and a half indicate that a large number of them occurred because of things that people have done to alter the landscape. These activities have included construction of roads, house building, and the cutting of trees. When you try to develop land on a steep slope, you can change a stable condition to an unstable one."
Friday, January 18, 2008
"Building Homes Where Nature Didn't Intend Them to be Built." Western North Carolina's Dangerous Mountain Slope Construction Practices
by Jeff Schmerker
The Mountaineer September 9/2/05
A rule might prevent slides, planners say
A homesite on a mountainside above Jonathan Valley Elementary could become the poster child for the potentially deadly consequences of unregulated hillside development in Haywood County.
In building a driveway and preparing a homesite on Late September Way in Campbell Mountain Estates, a developer modified an existing 40-foot vertical cut into a mountainside. But before the project could be finished, the mountain moved.
In the yard of a home at 31 January Heights, which is adjacent to and directly above the slope work, 2-inch wide fissures appeared like veins in the landscaping just off the home's back porch.
The slide appears to have been stopped-for now-thanks to quick work and an innovative engineering technique that injects a concrete-like substance into the hillside using iron piping. The hillside was then draped in fabric grids and coated in a geotextile material.
But the 40-foot cut, and the landslide it could have caused, spotlights clearly the effects of building homes where nature didn't intend them to be built.
The homesite where the work is occurring is owned by Billy Brede, a developer who planned to live there and use it as a showcase idea home for the development. Brede is also a member of the Maggie Valley planning board.
While not all land cuts end in landslide, the soil type in this hillside, called meta-sedimentary, was the catalyst in this failure, said planners and scientists. The soil is flecked with mica, which can act like ball bearings, said Bill Yarborough, an elected board member for the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District. While the soil type may have contributed to the failure, the actual culprit is mica's presence in weathered bedrock, said Rick Wooten, the senior geologist for geohazards with the North Carolina Geologic Survey in Asheville.
"You can take your hammer and knock it and see it is pretty crumbly," Wooten said. "In hindsight with the slope exposed, you can see that there are planes of weakness in the rock which contributed to the slope failure. It is not always something you can predict early on and may not be apparent until the slope is cut."
No rules broken.
The cut into the mountainside in Campbell Mountain broke no rules or ordinances, said outgoing Maggie Valley Planner Kevin Byrd, because there were no rules to break. The county and the towns of Clyde and Canton have no hillside development ordinances. Waynesville does, though their rules may not have prevented this particular problem from occurring.
The Waynesville ordinance requires larger lots on high elevation properties and engineering plans on slope cuts, as well as engineering devices for slope retention. "Slope failures are not covered," Byrd said. "You can still encounter bad soils."
Haywood County will be one step closer toward having a hillside development ordinance this fall once a detailed five-foot contour topographic map of the county is completed, said Board of Commissioners Chairman Mark Swanger.
"Technology has always been part of the problem," Swanger said.
By the end of this month Swanger expects the county will have that detailed topo map in hand and he plans to direct the county planning board to make an ordinance recommendation.
But slope failures are something that come with the territory.
"The problem we have is that you have what appears to be a slope that is fine to be built on, and then in the right weather conditions there is topsoil on top of bedrock that slides off," he said. "That's indigenous to our area."
The new maps, he said, will give county officials the ability to identify all slopes, even those just 10 feet tall by their steepness, Swanger said.
"This is the state of the art-it's the gold standard," he said. "Once that tool is out there, we want the planning department to being us the options,"
Brede, who is the project manager of Campbell Mountain Estates and also the president of the community's home owners association, said the mountain cut was made a decade or more ago by previous land users. He was attempting to terrace the slope and then install integrated wall blocks when the failure occurred.
Developer acted quickly
After the slide, which occurred on June 22, Brede immediately met with a geologist to see what could be done to prevent further collapse.
The geotextile infusion process, which uses a series of fused pipes, some drilled 60 feet into the hillside, filled cavities in the hillside that formed during the condensation of the earth. Some of that pumped geotextile material actually surfaced around the home on January Heights, having travelled several dozen feet through the ground to get there.
Before working on it, Brede said he preformed preliminary tests on the slope that failed to show presence of the voids. Complete geotechnical tests, he said are prohibitively expensive in residential developments.
"On a residential project project," Brede said, "nobody can do that many test borings."
Until rules are in place to regulate slopeside development there will probably be more failures like this in the future, said Yarborough. The vast majority of the land being developed in Haywood County, he said, is slopeside, not flat.
"This is a constant battle, and it is getting worse," Yarborough said. "It's like the cut the legs out from the mountain, and we keep having more and more problems."
Tip of iceberg.
Yarborough said it will take a county-wide effort to put rules in place that will help prevent failures from occurring.
Campbell Mountain is just one of several in Maggie Valley having slope failure problems: roads in Horseshoe Cove, for example, are cracking in half as one side slides down the mountain. A contractor estimated the roads there, like Bridle Drive and Creekside Drive would take $5 million to fix, with no guarantee that the fix would work.
Brede added that there have been several small slope failures, including one that failed even after being supported, in Campbell Mountain. He said that rooty plants are being used in addition to support structures like walls to stabilize the slopes.
Erosion control officials in the county have no say on how slopes are developed, said Yarborough and neither does the planning department.
"There was no desk to cross," he said. "Nobody has responsibility, but somebody should. This is crazy. It should have never happened to start with."
Possible ordinances which could be adopted by the county, said Yarborough, might factor variables including slope steepness, local rainfall data, soil types, the presence of bedrock, drainage, and development density. It could identify low, medium and high-risk areas.
The plan could be directed by the topo maps or by state-issued soil surveys and recommend building techniques or preventive measures, like retaining walls. "With soil surveys," he said, "normally you know beforehand what you are getting in to." The surveys, of course, don't tell developers how soils will behave but they could be used to create a master plan of suitable development standards.
Wooten said that while landslides are more common in steep terrain, an extensive geological or geotechnical investigation likely could have prevented the problem. But such an investigation could make development prohibitively expensive.
Haywood County Planner Kris Boyd said the planning department has a subcommittee which has just begun to look into slope development standards. There are no recommendations yet from that subcommittee, said Boyd.
The state appropriated funds to counties as part of the hurricane relief act to study hillside development and to study stormwater control. Macon, sites of the Peeks Creek disaster, is first in line for the study.
The board of commissioners will ultimately be the ones to decide to adopt a slope development ordinance, and how tough it should be, Boyd said.
"It will be a topic for discussion," he said. "We have had a talk of some type of guidelines for a period of time now."
Boyd did note, however, that Buncombe County recently had an easy adoption of slope development standards.
"At some level, and in some way, I think they would be beneficial," Boyd said. "But I am not sure what that level is."
"We could go too far, be too restrictive, or we could be nonrestrictive," he said. "We have to find some medium, and we have to find a balance, to promote this as well as not stop growth totally."
For Yarborough, finding that balance means saving lives. Two years ago a woman died when a slope collapsed on her home flattening it. He does not want to see that happen again.
"Maggie Valley dodged the bullet with the last hurricane," said Yarborough. "It could have been unbelievable, but there was not much rain here. This is the disaster I've been talking about for 20 years and if they keep doing this somebody is going to be killed."
Brede said he didn't think any slopeside development rules would have prevented the slide from occurring.
"There is nothing, no ordinance or any rule that would have affected that situation," he said. "That was a potential hazard waiting to happen...Nothing I did ever indicated that it would happen, it just happened. I had no intention to harm the home owner above me."
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Article published April 12, 2006
By Harrison Metzger
Times-News Staff Writer
Folks in Bear Rock Estates won't forget the night the hurricane-saturated mountainside tore loose, sending a torrent of mud, trees, and rocks hurdling more than 1000 feet down. The landslide happened Sept. 8, 2004, as Hurricane Francis pummeled the mountains with rain. But it has only been the last few months that a sense of normalcy has returned with the completion of repairs here. The 1,200-foot landslide is among about 130 sites across Henderson County repaired with $2.3 million in federal and state money. With the exception the Bear Rock slide and two smaller slides in Bat Cave and Edneyville, the projects restored stream banks damaged during the 2004 hurricanes. The U. S. Natural Resources Natural Conservation Service administered all repair projects following Hurricane Floyd which caused billions of dollars of damage in Eastern North Carolina in 1999. But when Hurricane Frances and Ivan struck the mountains in 2004, the agency allowed Henderson and other counties to contract with engineering firms to repair landslide damage. "NRCS had a few years to reflect, if this happens again, how can we do it better," said Dan Rosenburg, Henderson County district conservationist for the agency. "We decided to put more control on the counties." Rosenburg credited counties with getting the job done. He presented the Henderson County Board of Commissioners last week with a certificate for leadership in administering the Emergency Watershed Protection
Program. Assistant County Manager Justin Hembree oversaw the repair projects. "They were done well, professionally and on time," Rosenburg told county leaders. The federal program provided 75 percent of the repair money with North Carolina providing the remainder. While the high profile landslides got a lot of attention, most projects went to restore ripped out stream banks, preventing tons of soil from washing into streams and rivers. In addition to replanted trees to hold stream banks, some sites required "serious engineering measures," such as hardened structures to deflect flood waters away from banks, Rosenburg said. The objective was to restore banks and hillsides to pre-hurricane conditions as much as possible. In Bear Rock Mountain Estates, the program spent about $394,000 to repair a slide that was smaller version of the deadly one that wiped out part of the Peek's Creek Community in Macon County during Hurricane Ivan. The Bear Rock Mountain slide occurred in a private development and tore out parts of two private roads. It was eligible for federal and state money because the yawning chasm left after the slide continued to threaten homes until it was stabilized. The slide happened when topsoil on steep slopes gave way where Bear Rock Road climbs the flank of Pinnacle Mountain. The road was closed for more than a year, forcing residents in the upper part of the development to drive miles out of their way on Pinnacle Mountain Road to get to town. Contract crews built a retaining wall to stabilize where Bear Rock Road crosses the top of the slide. Now steel guardrails protect motorists crossing new blacktop where once the pavement was cracked and falling into the ravine. Culverts divert water along the side of the debris field, now sewn with new grass. About 150 feet below, the slide ripped out of part of Upper Loop Road, a gravel road between the homes of Dale Nash and Karen and Steve Gardner. That area has also been repaired with new hardened culverts and rock berms designed to slow the speed of water coming down the mountain. Contract crews did the initial work in October but had to return recently to replace culverts with larger ones, Karen Gardner said. The Gardners can now drive down Upper Loop a short distance to the pavement, instead of a longer, rougher road they and their neighbor were forced to use soon after the slide. Mrs. Gardner said neighbors are still waiting for their homeowners association to pave part of their road that had been scheduled for blacktop a couple of weeks before the the hurricane. But she said she and her husband, a cabinet designer, are happy with the repairs. "It has been a big improvement for us, made life a lot easier," she said Tuesday. She said she feels the repairs have made the slide safer, and she no longer worries about it. "I used to (worry) every time it rained," she said. "I feel that is pretty stable up there now."
by Charles White
Maggie Valley-A tough legal battle is developing between homeowners in the Horseshoe Cove community and the man who built the subdivisions.
The homeowners, led by Pam Williams, met at the Maggie Valley Town Hall May 30 to face and question Don Condren, the developer, who she said is responsible for upkeep and repairs to the roads running through the community.
Mudslides cut through several sections of Horseshoe Cove after the early May rains, causing many homeowners to become concerned about the stability of their lots and the roads leading to them.
However, because the roads are private, it is unclear who should foot the bill to ensure the roadways remain passable in the cove. "This is an important issue that has to be resolved for the safety of our community," Williams said.
Williams said Condren has waffled on a key point about financial responsibility.
According to Williams, Condren agreed with her there had never been an official homeowners' association organized.
She said the closing contract on her house states as long as no recognized homeowners' association is formed, the developer is to assume the burden of maintaining the community's infrastructure. Condren, however, has said in the past that homeowners had already formed an association, making the homeowners responsible for their own repairs, Williams said.
This was the message he seemed to be sending when he attended the Saturday evening meeting in the company of four other people he said were part of the homeowners' association.
Williams does not recognize what she calls the "alleged" association.
Many homeowners became confused and upset when Jeff Norris, an attorney with Killian and Kirsten law firm in Waynesville, said that he was there to represent the homeowners' association.
The homeowners present said that they did not feel they had retained the services of Norris. "We're working to try to address the issues that affect the community," Norris told the Enterprise Mountaineer in a phone interview. Norris said he had been retained by the developer, Doncon corporation, to facilitate the workings of the association. The homeowners' association, Norris said, was formed last year, whether or not the homeowners knew about it.
All homeowners are required to be part of that association as restrictions placed on lots in the Horseshoe Cove area stipulate, according to Norris.
Williams said that Condren himself had obtained Norris' services.
Condren was unavailable for comment about what he previously said about the formation of the homeowners' association. As a result of the meeting, all 28 homeowners present elected to retain the law services of Mary Euler, an attorney from McGuire, Wood, and Bisette, a law firm in Asheville.
Euler said that she had not yet been formally retained but was in the process of contacting all of the homeowners in Horseshoe Cove to ask if they wanted to be represented by her.
The Mountaineer June 10, 2003
"Home's stability has been restored"
To the editor:
The Wednesday March 29 Mountaineer ran a front page article highlighting the mud slides that have damaged properties in Haywood County, and included a photograph of our property on U.S. 276.
The photograph was taken several years ago when we suffered major damage due to underground erosion by mountain streams beneath the surface, not by mud slides on the surface, and conveyed to the readers the impression that this property is unstable and therefore undesirable.
Extensive engineering work was done by the engineering firm of Bernell-Lammons of Asheville to investigate and determine the origin of the problem, and to recommend corrective measures to be taken. Over 200 feet of "French drains" were installed during the repair, covered by 9,000 cubic feet of dirt, to stabilize the mountain.
A year after the work was complete, the consulting engineer from Bernell-Lammons again inspected the mountain and declared that, "It's good for at least another 100 years."
This was confirmed when the devastating storms of September 2004, which caused much damage in the county, had no ill effect on this property. We thank the editors of The Mountaineer for printing this article, as the property is currently on the market, and we believe the homes here will provide exceptional housing for families for years to come.
Restoration Ministries International
Rev. John C. Briggs
Waynesville, North Carolina
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Western North Carolina geologic hazard maps show thousands of old landslide deposits. Many of these dormant but dangerous locations are currently under residential development.
During the first week in January 2008, a broken water pipe caused a mudslide at Scenic Mountain Resort. Jonathan Austin, editor of the News Record & Sentinel reported in his article, "Water break moves mud" that
"Frigid temperatures froze a water pipe at the Scenic Wolf Resort last week, causing a leak that sent mud flowing onto a street and up the steps of three nearby cabins. Resort officials said no one was injured and that work crews immediately went to work clearing the road and removing the wall of mud...Dick Wolfe, office manager/resort manager said temperatures at the resort dropped to three degrees last week, and the water pipe, which may feed snow blowers on the ski slopes, froze and broke "sometime on the night Wednesday or early in the morning Thursday." Mud flowed onto the steps and stoops of at least three cabins, but owners were occupying them and no guests were in the other. Guests scheduled for a cabin were redirected to another so they wouldn't be impacted by the pile of mud. Wolfe said he had crews working Thursday to clear the road, although on Friday, there was a distinct muddiness on the road and on some of the cabins. He said the resort might use water trucks to spray the mud away, and that the problem was short lived."
Sunday, January 13, 2008
It is a fact: the dangerous and careless rush to build homes and roads on Western North Carolina's hazardous unmapped mountain slopes will have a serious cost. Spontaneous and uncontrollable landslides will cause fatalities and massive uninsurable property loss. These catastrophic events happened in September 2004 and they will happen again.
The Western North Carolina federally required landslide mapping program was intended to prevent the development and sale of hazardous land. Instead planning boards and developers in the 21 county high risk region refused to wait for these critical safety studies. As a result thousands of homes have been built and are being constructed on or below treacherous slopes throughout the region. Three landslide maps are now in the public domain. The hazard maps for Macon, Buncombe, and Watauga counties show that hundreds of homes and access roads have been sited on old landslide deposits and unstable soils. These landslide prone properties will soon be legally defined as high risk real estate.
In December 2007 the District of Northern Vancouver issued a geologic report showing 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. Owners of the now identified hazardous properties are concerned that this public information will impair the salability of their homes.
According to Sam Cooper's article, "Homeowners cry foul over DNV landslide risk report," in the December 20, 2007 edition of North Shore Outlook, 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.
Jay Straith, an attorney representing some of the families in the 2005 Seymour landslide tragedy said if previous councils would have been as "proactive" with risk assessment policy as the current one, the Kuttner tragedy would have never happened.
Straith has stated that 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."
"People are buying and selling properties with no disclosure of geotechnical issues. (Landslide and other risk issues experienced in North Vancouver) is the tip of a very large iceberg going across the whole province." Straith believes that risk information should be tagged to land titles across the province, as is done in disaster-prone California."
Sunday, January 6, 2008
This property is located in a Mars Hill, North Carolina mountain resort.
The photo was taken January 4, 2008 and shows extensive slope erosion. Eroding slopes are a common problem affecting property owners in the mountain counties of Western North Carolina. Retaining walls are frequently required to repair deteriorating slopes and to prevent landslides. The cost of stabilizing eroding and landslide prone slopes is costly, generally $50,000 to $100,000. Builders and developers often seed the steep sloped construction site to slow erosion, but this is only a temporary measure and it will not stop earth movement.
Friday, January 4, 2008
In 1998 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management issued a report stating that the mountain slopes and ridges in the 21 counties of Western North Carolina were at extreme risk for the probability of landslides.
In September 2004 rain from tropical storms caused catastrophic landslide damage throughout the region. The state applied for 2 disaster declarations and received $72 million in federal emergency grants. For receipt of these funds, the state was required to initiate a landslide mapping program so that homes would be built only in safe areas.
In October 2006 Governor Easley issued a press release announcing the first of the Western North Carolina landslide maps. The landslide maps for Macon County show historic landslide events, attempt to qualify factors of slope instability, and determine 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."
Since the fall of 2004, Western North Carolina planning boards have willfully ignored established geologic safety standards and have allowed hundreds of subdivisions to be built on unmapped and very likely unstable ground.
Their actions have placed uninformed buyers at significant personal and financial risk. Deaths from landslides are uncommon, 6 recorded fatalities in Western North Carolina since 2003, but property damage from erosion and landslides is commonplace, expensive, and uninsurable. The published landslide maps for Macon, Watauga, and Buncombe counties show that homes have been built in unsuitable and unsafe areas. Soon this risk information will be required for all real estate transactions and this will affect the value of these now identified landslide prone properties.
There is increasing legal awareness that prospective home buyers in designated hazard zones are disadvantaged by the silence of the seller and the real estate industry. Courts are recognizing this inequity and are finding for the injured parties. Law professor, Denis Binder, stated in his review, "The Duty to Disclose Geologic Hazards in Real Estate Transactions" that, "We should not realistically expect a purchaser to check the county clerk's office, the planning and zoning commission files, the Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Geologic Society, the state geologist, other agencies, and the Internet..."
Newcomers should not rely on the the actions of Western North Carolina planning boards or developers to protect their safety and financial interests.
Representative Ray Rapp, sponsor of the Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act, has encountered strong opposition from the Realtors and Home Builders Associations concerning the possibility of state regulation over construction standards and disclosure of landslide risks.
In an interview with Becky Johnson, staff writer for the Smoky Mountain News, Representative Rapp said, "The only thing I hear consistently is a concern that it might hurt economic development if there were any limits put on some of this slope development. In most mountain communities, developers answer to no one. They don't have to file a plan with the county before putting in roads or home sites, and no one checks up on their work afterwards." Please see "Rapp tries to round up support for slope development bill." Becky Johnson, Smoky Mountain News, January 2, 2008.
Home owners throughout the region face a constant battle with unstable slopes and expensive repairs. It does not make the news but a growing number of property owners in Western North Carolina have also had to deal with condemnation of their homes after slope failures rendered their properties uninhabitable. Planning boards and developers did not rescue these unfortunate home owners who have a mortgage on a worthless piece of property.
Prospective buyers should choose wisely. Tell the seller/builder/developer that you will not buy slope property unless it has been certified by a state licensed geologist.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Photo of landslide in Maggie Valley, North Carolina (Haywood
County) Cause of landslide is unknown . In December 2003 a
Maggie Valley home was destroyed by a landslide. Edward Jones
and his wife Patricia were at home when the slide occurred. Mr.
Jones was rescued but his wife did not survive.
How important is your safety?
It is not in the news and most people have forgotten that landslides devastated Western North Carolina in September 2004, lives were lost and homes and roads were pushed down mountain slopes. Since then this twice declared disaster region has become a developers' playground. Bulldozers and backhoes work at breakneck speed to carve out idyllic mountain settings for resorts and homes. This prime or perhaps subprime property is then advertised and sold to unsuspecting buyers. State authorities have known since 1983 that Western North Carolina's mountain ridges and slopes were high risk building locations yet they continue to allow the development and sale of this hazardous land without regulation and risk disclosure.
Today North Carolina lawmakers are studying this important public safety/disclosure measure. Some legislators have suggested that these issues be put on hold until 2014 when all of the at risk counties will have been mapped by the North Carolina Geological Survey.
On January 2, 2008 Representative Ray Rapp spoke with Becky Johnson of the Smokey Mountain News about his inability to gather support for safe slope regulations and disclosure of landslide risks. According to Ms. Johnson's article, Rapp is not a fan of the "caveat emptor" motto that has prevailed in WNC's development boom. Rapp said that buyers simply don't know to beware. Rapp continued, "All they see is a million-dollar view. They are looking at the view not at their feet-and what is underneath their feet could be highly detrimental to their safety." For the complete article please see "Rapp tries to round up support for slope development bill."
Ron DeSimone, President of the Haywood Builders Association, stated the following in his October 2007 News Letter: "Like it or not, what the government does and doesn't do has a direct and fundamental impact on your business. Whether you are a builder or associate member, you should be aware that your industry is under assault. "No growth" groups and radical consumer advocates have advanced proposals which--had they been enacted--would have made it harder, if not impossible, for you to make a living. The governmental affairs staffs of both your national and state association, with your help, have been able to derail many of these bad ideas. All of these decisions were made by local officials or those appointed by them. More of these "bad ideas" are coming! Fortunately both in the U.S. Congress and in our North Carolina General Assembly, our industry has many friends....Landslides and
environmental issues are fairly rare and most builders and developers are trying hard to create desirable communities that promote the mountain environment. This is not to diminish the gravity of the problem, or to say that some regulation isn't needed; however, it is important to put things in perspective."
According to a July 2007 article written by Tom Bennett for the Hiawassee River Watershed Coalition, Inc., Rick A. Zechini, director of governmental affairs for the North Carolina Association of Realtors sent e-mails to Realtors throughout the state. In these April 2007 messages Mr. Zechini discussed two concerns facing North Carolina Realtors. The first was the possibility that the legislature would enact safe slope regulations and the second was that prospective buyers would be forewarned of landslide risks. For more information about the Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act and the actions of the North Carolina Association of Realtors please see Mr. Bennett's article "Artificial Slopes".
Even though the North Carolina legislature and the Office of the Attorney General have declined to require fair warning for the sale of hazardous land, this does not absolve Realtors from the legal responsibility of disclosing the material fact that slope failures have and will continue to cause loss of life and significant uninsurable property damage.
North Carolina provides that unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are unlawful and are subject to a civil injunction by the Attorney General.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
In June 2006 Buncombe County received applications for 23
major subdivisions encompassing more than 3000 acres of mountain slope development. Some of these applications were for High Carolina (1284 acres) Brittain Knob (279 acres) Phoenix Cove (73 acres) and Town Mountain Cove (175 acres). When this land is added to the approved and on going mountain resort development projects such as Reynolds Mountain, The Settings, Versant, Crest Mountain and SouthCliff, thousands of homes will have been built on unmapped and very likely unstable slopes.
The Buncombe County Hazard Mitigation Plan (August 23, 2004) stated that the steep slopes and fragile soils of Western North Carolina place Buncombe County at a high risk of a landslide. This report was issued just weeks before the catastrophic slope failures of September 2004.
What effect will the Buncombe County Landslide Stability Map have on the value of these now identified high risk properties?