Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Is it Safe to Live in Western North Carolina?" Landslide Rating Maps are not Available

In 1998 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management classified the following counties at high risk for the dangers of landslides: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, McDowell, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Surry, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, and Yancey. It should be noted that this assessment by the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management was made without landslide mapping.

In September 2004 fifteen of these western counties were declared federal landslide disaster areas.

Today only two counties have been mapped for landslide probability. Geologic investigators have determined that most of the mountain slopes in Macon and Watauga Counties are at high to moderate risk for landslides.

The residents of Western North Carolina and the residents of western Oregon face the ever present threat of landslides. As demonstrated by the following article landslide risk maps provide a clear and accurate picture of where not to build or buy. That is, if you know where to find them.


"State keeps landslide danger zones hidden"

By Michael Milstein of The Oregonian January 19, 2008

State geologists predicted the landslide that crushed homes and severed U.S. 30 west of Clatskanie, but the state shelved the information in part because of concerns it would interfere with land development.

The prediction was spelled out in landslide hazard maps that state geologists drew up for all of western Oregon after landslides killed five people in 1996. The maps labeled most of the area involved in last month's U.S. 30 slide as posing "very high" or "extreme" landslide hazard -- the highest possible categories of risk.

They showed the danger extending from Oregon State University clear-cuts where the destructive chain of events began, downhill to an old earthen railroad crossing that allowed mud and debris to collect for more than a week, forming a lake. The debris broke loose Dec. 11, releasing a muddy torrent into homes that sat in the danger zone.

But people living in those homes never knew the maps existed -- even though the state spent $250,000 developing them to help protect life and property.

State foresters who reviewed logging more than a mile above the homes knew about the maps but did not refer to them, they said.

Other homeowners in a state full of risky terrain -- Portland's West Hills, the Coast Range, parts of southwest Oregon and elsewhere -- don't know whether they face the same risk as those west of Clatskanie.

That's because a little-known state board quietly withdrew the maps from official use in 2003 after city and county officials complained that they labeled too much area as hazardous and might restrict development and hurt property values, according to state documents and interviews with people involved. The state law that called for the maps included mandates that made local officials see it all as a regulatory headache.

The state never supplied money to refine the maps -- which cover 19 western Oregon counties -- the way cities and counties wanted.

The result is that the maps showing areas at highest risk of landslides remain unknown to those in the most danger.

"I bought it a year and a half ago," Mike Roubal said of his family's home west of Clatskanie, buried almost to its eaves by the Dec. 11 landslide. He evacuated shortly before the mud hit but lost several uninsured vehicles, including a classic 1955 Chevy, and is now struggling with paperwork to seek state and federal assistance. "I wouldn't have bought it if I would have known there was this kind of risk."

State officials estimate cleanup and repair costs for Highway 30 at $1.3 million.

A few cities and counties refer to the landslide maps when permitting new development, but many do not. That leaves some Oregonians to build new homes where they may sit in the bull's-eye of a coming landslide, experts say.

"The information is out there -- it's just not being used," said Scott Burns, a professor at Portland State University and authority on landslides. "It's a pity, because if we get more of these big storms, we're going to have more debris flows and more people in danger."

The lack of action reflects widespread reluctance by local governments to control development or take other action to reduce risk from hazards such as landslides, floods and tsunamis, said Gail Achterman, chairwoman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, who also headed a task force on landslide risk.

"The hard policy decisions have simply not been made," she said. "It's easier to do nothing and wait for FEMA to bail you out."

The landslide maps were among the most advanced of their kind at the time they were produced, Burns and other geologists said. When scientists checked the maps against evidence of historic landslides, they found that the maps correctly identified more than 90 percent of the areas buried in slide debris.

Geologists who worked on the maps said they're especially frustrated that what could have been a tool to protect people from disaster has been all but forgotten. The area west of Clatskanie, around Woodson, was one of the areas geologists specifically checked to verify the accuracy of the maps, said John Hofmeister, who led the mapping for the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

A 1933 landslide killed four people about a half mile from where the slide struck last month. Heavy rains in 1996 produced small flows of rocks and debris in the area, residents said, but nothing like the major barrage -- compounded by the lake of debris that collected -- that struck last month.

"I figured it would happen there again, and it did," Hofmeister said. The mapping was so complex he tied together the department's computers on weekends -- for a month -- to sift through terrain data for clues about where slides might strike and how they would rush downhill.

"It really pulls at my gut" that the information isn't widely available, said Hofmeister, who left the department after finishing the maps and now runs a startup energy company. "It's not a good allocation of resources to have things like this get developed and get dropped for political reasons."

The maps emerged from statewide concern about landslide danger after the fatal slides of 1996. Slides that winter didn't kill anyone in Portland but damaged about 100 homes -- with statewide costs totaling nearly $100 million.

Gov. John Kitzhaber in early 1997 issued an action plan to reduce the likelihood of slides, and the risk to life and property when slides happen.

Some of his direction dealt with controlling logging of steep slopes, which can add to landslide risk. He also told the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon State University to map landslide hazards, giving local governments and property owners a picture of the risk.

A task force followed, and in 1999 the Legislature passed a bill outlining a state strategy on landslides. It gave the Department of Forestry authority to limit logging that could increase the risk of slides, but gave the mapping job to the state Department of Geology.

The job originally was to be done by four people over a couple of years, Hofmeister said. Instead, it turned out to be "me, myself and I" working on it, he said, with unpaid help from other landslide experts he consulted around the world.

The maps were meant to show cities and counties where they should more carefully review new development to make sure it wasn't in danger from landslides.

Former state geologist John Beaulieu, who headed the Department of Geology at the time, called Hofmeister's maps "a brilliant piece of work." He said "the technical part that he had to do was bigger and tougher and more cutting-edge than anyone realized."

The maps outlined areas with landslide risk, and then rated land inside those areas -- through colors -- from "extreme" to "low" hazard.

But the Legislature attached a mandate to the maps: Cities and counties had to adopt regulations requiring extra scrutiny of development in landslide zones. So the Department of Geology presented it to local officials in 2002 only as the broad outline of the hazard zones -- without the colored ratings, Hofmeister said.

That made it look like vast amounts of land faced landslide hazards, without providing local officials a way to distinguish areas of low hazard from those of extreme hazard -- such as Woodson.

"It's like taking away the painting and only leaving the frame," Hofmeister said. "All you're going to see is this big balloon."

Cities and counties complained that the maps were too general and included too much area. They quickly came to view the maps as a regulatory burden that could anger landowners and hurt property values. That was compounded by growing concern -- later embodied in the Measure 37 property rights debate -- that governments might have to compensate landowners if regulations took away use of their land.

"Do we really want to throw fuel on the takings compensation fire?" state Rep. Susan Morgan, R-Roseburg, wrote in a letter to Beaulieu at the time. She said landslide rules "will be placing a substantial financial burden on Oregon's citizens at a time when we are trying to encourage economic development."

"There was a very, very strong bias then that, 'I don't want to regulate development,'" Hofmeister recalls.

Shortly afterward, the commission that oversees the Department of Geology formally withdrew the maps from use. The department had a plan to refine the maps, but there was never any money for it.

The maps are now available only on an obscure state Web site - - that Hofmeister and another state employee worked on at night and on weekends. "Even geotechnical engineers don't know it's there," he said.

The state now hopes cities and counties will help pay for a new generation of maps based on laser measurements that provide a detailed picture of the land surface. That will probably take five years, at the earliest, said Vicki McConnell, the state geologist.

"Having that (earlier) map out there could in some cases be quite useful," she said. "However, we now have an opportunity to get even better information out there."

In landslide-prone Douglas County, Planning Director Keith Cubic said the county has tried to highlight the danger of slides for residents, but that only goes so far.

"We have heightened awareness, but we don't have the tool we were supposed to have," he said. "It's a frustration, because I think we could be doing a better job if we had the maps."

Columbia County, where Woodson is, might be one of the few counties that refers to the maps when considering new development. But Glen Higgins, the planning director, said there has been no drive to alert people whose homes may already be in danger.

"The general population kind of knows there's a risk out there," he said. "Whether the individual homeowner knows, I don't know."


While most experts agree that Oregon has fallen short of its goals to reduce landslide danger, a few cities and counties are out in front of the rest of the state.

After slides damaged homes around Salem in 1996, the city and Marion County used some of the federal disaster assistance money to hire state geologists to map landslide hazard zones. The geologists found that areas that might seem stable could end up sliding, damaging roads and houses.

There was also concern the city and county could be sued if they permitted building that compounded landslide danger.

The city and county then adopted ordinances that aimed to shift development toward terrain with lower risk, said Les Sasaki, a planner with Marion County who worked for the city of Salem at the time. The more extensive the development, the more careful the study the city and county required.

"We didn't want to say, 'No, you can't do anything,' but we did want to create caution around these hazards," he said. There was broad support for the actions. "Everybody sort of realized that the responsibility and the risk is shared," he said.

Now the city and county are known as leaders, said Scott Burns, a landslide expert at Portland State University.

"They're a national, if not international, model," said Andre LeDuc, director of the Oregon Natural Hazards Workgroup at the University of Oregon. He said other areas have lagged for various reasons, including a lack of funds and reliable information about landslide risk, plus reluctance to regulate land use.

"A lot of it is political will and money," he said.

Oregon City and Washington County now support more detailed landslide mapping by the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. Oregon City learned the hard way, after allowing construction of an apartment building on a known landslide site where sliding later caused serious damage.

State Geologist Vicki McConnell said she hopes to work with other local governments to map more of the state.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, who worked on state landslide hazard bills, said state and local governments have a role in mapping and alerting residents to landslide danger, "so people can't say, 'I had no idea the risk was there.'"

But he also said it's difficult to shift money from schools and other needs to look for possible hazards.

"To take resources away from agreed-upon priorities to spend money on something that might happen is a hard sell."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Where are the Western North Carolina Landslide Hazard Maps?

In September 2004 landslides ravaged 15 counties in Western North Carolina, lives were lost and homes and roads slid down steep mountain slopes. The state received 2 federal disaster declarations and $72 million in emergency aid. For receipt of federal grants, the state was required to initiate a comprehensive "Is it Safe to Build Here" regional landslide mapping study. To date only 2 series of landslide maps have been completed. The hazard maps for Macon County were finished in October 2006 and the studies for Watauga in January 2008.

According to legislative findings and geologic investigations, landslides in Western North Carolina are serious and determinable threats to lives and property. The Macon and Watauga County government websites provide no information about the reasons for the landslide mapping program or the existence of the completed hazard maps.

The following article demonstrates the difficulty in identifying properties that are at risk of landslide damage.

"Maps Show Landslide Risk For Properties" / Oregon Public Broadcasting

By Kristian Foden-Vencil

Portland, OR January 9, 2008

The state of Oregon released a report Wednesday finding that landslides are a major hazard-causing about $10 million worth of damage a year.

After four people died in one particularly bad slide in the 1990's, the state's 'Department of Geology and Mineral Industries' was charged with creating a map to highlight all the problem areas.

But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, these maps can be difficult to access, depending on where you live, so learning or not your home is prone to landslides can be a pain.

If you're about to buy a home and it sits at the base of a steep slope, you might want to find out whether the area is prone to landslides.

If the house is in Portland, you're in luck. The city has set up an impressive website '' where you can type in your address and find out whether you should be worried about landslides.

But if you don't live in Portland--most likely you're in for a trip down to the planning office and probably a map-printing fee.

Andy Stahl owns a 44-acre farm near Eugene, on which he's seen evidence of landslides.

Andy Stahl: "The maps are only available if you have geographic information software and you have to buy the maps. And this is very much on purpose, because the real estate industry, local developers, local counties, and cities who want to promote growth, don't want people to know where the dangerous areas are."

It sounds like a conspiracy theory.

But James Roddey of 'The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries' says there are a couple of reasons why his agency hasn't put the landslide map on the web.

James Roddey: "One is money. Putting together something like that is an expensive proposition. But something that we're working on. For example, if you live in Oregon City and you live in a landslide area, you can actually go to our website and put in your address and put in a layer over it that gives landslides for the Oregon City area and look and see if your home is in a landslide prone area. So we're moving toward that. But it's a lengthy process."

The question is, does he think there's a conspiracy limiting the data?

James Roddey: "It's not necessarily that there's a conspiracy to withhold this information. It's just that the technology wasn't there, the law wasn't written as well as it could have been. The things that the law was going to trigger were going to be burdens for communities to have to live with. So fast forward to now, where we're working with Oregon City to develop these maps, and even looking at susceptibility maps, so that we're going to to be able to go to Oregon City and says that you have areas of your community that are much more susceptible to landslides to others. The real estate people aren't going to like, but it's reality."

It's true that it's easy to find landslide information in towns like Portland and Oregon City. But you don't have to look far before it becomes more difficult.

Take Salem for example. It has a website where you can easily pull up zoning maps. But if your house stands close to a hill, waterfall, or other landslide hazard, you'll have to get in contact with a planner.

Glen Gross: "You can come to the Salem City hall. To the community development department."

Glen Gross is Salem's planning administrator.

Glenn Gross: "Go to the permit application center. We have a planning information desk, that's staffed all the time, 8 to 5, five days a week including the lunch hour. And you can ask the planner on duty to tell you whether or not the home that you're interested in is in a landslide hazard area. And what the planner will do is take the address that you give them, put it in a computer, and our geographic information system has a layer of information for landslide hazard areas and it will pop up."

And why isn't it on the web?

Glenn Gross: "Well we're looking at putting more information on our website. And eventually I'm sure it will be but at the moment we have not put that particular piece on the website."

Planning websites, like Portland's, have become increasingly sophisticated over the last decade.

For example at '' it's now possible to find out if you live in a flood plain, a high risk earthquake zone, or for that matter, how much your neighbor paid for his house.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Safe Slope Regulations Rejected in Western North Carolina

The landslide probability maps for Buncombe, Macon, and Watauga counties show stark landscapes: steep mountain terrain at certain risk of slope failures. Much of this land, if investigated for stability, would be classified as unsafe "no build" locations. Currently residential development on these hazardous mountain slopes is receiving no more oversight and regulation than a Florida flatland subdivision.

In 1998 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management determined that the 21 county region known as Western North Carolina was at extreme risk for the possibility of landslides. This report should have prompted immediate legislative action requiring strict control over the development and sale of hazardous land. Instead the state relegated this serious responsibility to county and local governments. Today no regulating entity has established meaningful slope regulations. Safe slope regulations are simple and effective: They require regulation over all slope grades if there is any evidence that disturbance of the slope would trigger landslides.

Landslide maps accurately identify at risk mountain slopes; professionals are then required to determine the suitability and safety of a proposed development site. Landslide maps are universal in design and color markers.

The following steep slope regulations were proposed for the Town of Boone by the Boone Steep Slope Task Force and Trigon Engineering. The Boone Town Council allocated $20,000 for the creation of a regulatory geologic hazard map for the town and its extraterritorial jurisdiction. The Town of Boone is located in Watauga County.

Red Zone (High Geologic Hazard): Areas of high probability that disturbance of the slope will yield landslides affecting the subject property or surrounding properties. Red zone indicators:

[1] Slopes steeper than 50% with any of the following: Fault Zone cataclastic (broken) rocks; Pre-existing landslide deposits; Daylighting fracture sets; Daylighting sedimentary layers (bedding), or other planar structures; Thick soils (greater than 10 feet thick).
[2] Localized over-steepened slopes (greater than 67%) (over-steepened by natural processes or previous development).
[3] Zones of likely debris flow deposition.

Orange Zone (Moderate Geologic Hazard): Areas of moderate probability that disturbance of the slope will yield landslides affecting the subject property or surrounding properties. Orange zone indicators include:

[1] Slopes ranging between 15% and 50% with any of the following: Pre-existing landslide deposits; Daylighting fracture sets; Daylighting micaceous or clay rich soils; Thick soils (greater than 10 feet thick).
[2] Localized over-steepened slopes (greater than 67%) (over-steepened by natural processes or previous development) associated with other Orange Zone indicators.
[3] Zones of possible debris flow deposition.

Green Zone (Low Geologic Hazard): Areas of low probability that disturbance of the slope will yield landslides. Green zone indicators include:

[1] Slopes less than 15% and none of the following: Unstable or steep pre-existing landslide deposits; Zones of possible debris flow deposition.

The requirements for all properties within the Red and Orange Geologic Hazard zones shall be as follows:
[1] Plans for the development of any property must be accompanied by a site-specific geologic analysis of the portion of the site to be affected by the proposed development plan, paid for by the applicant, and conducted by a North Carolina licensed geologist, to determine whether that plan can be developed on the site without jeopardizing slope stability on the site itself and on properties surrounding the site.
[2] If the lot is determined to be safe for development but requires remedial measures to ensure slope stability, a North Carolina licensed engineer must develop and present a plan that will preserve slope stability during and after the completion of grading and construction for the site as well as for surrounding properties.


On October 2, 2006 the Town of Boone finalized their steep slope bill. The new regulations did not include many of the original standards called for by the Task Force. The most important change in the recommendations was the elimination of the color coded regulatory hazard map that identified high, medium, and low risk development areas.

Jeff Templeton and his influential group, The Committee for Responsible Environmental Regulations, were instrumental in undermining the safeguards advocated by the Boone Task Force and Trigon Engineering. Mr. Templeton argued that if the regulations were enacted as proposed, the new measure would lower property values and increase building costs.

On the same day that the Boone Town Council passed its new slope ordinance, a state geology group issued a report that identified Watauga County as the most likely county in the western part of the state to experience hazardous landslides.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

An unreported landslide in Madison County, North Carolina

According to Madison County Court documents a home located at 1031 Flynn Branch Road in Marshall, North Carolina suffered extensive landslide damage during the rain storms of September 2004.

The property in question was 30% complete before the slope failure on September 16, 2004. "Based upon the advice of several engineering appeared the structure would have to be removed and soil properly compacted before any repairs could be made, and/or before remaining work to the structure could be completed."
(06 CVS 16)

Western North Carolina landslide property damage is frequent, expensive, and uninsurable.

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.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Western North Carolina Landslides Are Predictable... But Can be Prevented with Safe Slope Regulation

Governor Easley and the landslide mapping program

In October 2006 Governor Mike Easley reported that the first of the state advisory landslide hazard maps had been completed for Macon County. The "Is it Safe to Build or Buy Here" maps show historic landslide events in the county. This is critical construction information: "Once a slope has failed the underlying shale or clay that is in the failure zone will never go back to its original strength and even in dry years these slopes can continue to show movement (it may slow down to almost zero but it does not take the same force to sustain movement after failure)...
Any home in an active landslide will be destroyed at some point in the future -it could be 5 years or 5000 years- it's nearly impossible to say. Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan for Colorado Springs, Colorado

It is important to note Governor Easley's recommendations. "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."

Does the Governor truly believe that these non-regulatory maps are sensible and safe ways to formulate public policy for the prevention of future landslides in the fifteen counties that were declared federal disaster areas in September 2004?

The state has carelessly chosen to relegate responsibility to parties that do not have the will power or knowledge to prevent the next series of landslide disasters. Legislators have unfairly burdened the real estate industry, local government, and buyers with the responsibility of interpreting and responding to scientific data on a geologic landslide hazard map.

The real estate industry does not have the authority to pass slope regulations or to oversee compliance of these regulations. This concern has been left to the counties, towns, and cities in Western North Carolina. How do local governments respond to the risk information on the hazard maps and the reality that large portions of the developable taxable land in their jurisdiction is at severe probability for slope failures?

This serious question can only be answered by local governments throughout the region. According to reports most planning boards are ignoring the hazard maps and are continuing to permit unrestricted and unsupervised development of highly hazardous land.

Today, almost 4 years after the catastrophic landslide disasters, only two hazard maps have been completed. The maps for Watauga and Macon Counties are available though the North Carolina Geological Survey, but prospective buyers would have to know about them.

Western North Carolina Realtors have chosen not to disclose the existence of the landslide mapping program.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Judge Rules: The Cliffs at High Carolina will not have to comply with steep slope regulations.

Location of the Cliffs at High Carolina on Buncombe County Landslide Map

This preliminary Buncombe County landslide hazard map shows mountainous terrain at serious risk of slope failures. Red (High Geologic Hazard) designates areas of high probability that disturbance of the slope will trigger landslides. Also displayed are significant numbers of landslides and landslide deposits. These locations are considered extreme risk building sites.

The Buncombe County Hazard Mitigation Plan (August 23, 2004) found that the steep slopes and fragile soils of Western North Carolina place Buncombe County at high risk for landslides. This report was issued just weeks before the 15 county slope failures of September 2004.

Even though city and county officials know that landslides are serious threats to lives and property they continue to permit the development and sale of identifiable hazardous mountain land.

Important risk information for prospective buyers of mountain slope property in the City of Asheville and Buncombe County.

"The landslide problem will probably be a problem for years to come. Once a slope has failed the strength of the underlying shale or clay that is in the failure zone will never go back to its original strength and even in dry years these slopes can continue to show movement (it may slow down to almost zero but it does not take the same force to sustain movement after failure)." Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan for Colorado Springs ( Page 41)

"Any home in an active landslide will be destroyed at some point in the future-it could be 5 years or 5000 years-it's nearly impossible to say." Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan for Colorado Springs (Page 44)

"When you clear-cut potentially unstable slopes, you increase the risk of landslides up to tenfold." Testimony by geologist and University of Washington Professor David Montgomery.
"Clear-cutting, nature blamed for landslides" by John Dodge, The Olympian, January 11, 2008. The Cliffs at High Carolina will be extensively cleared to accommodate the 2,500 acre resort.

Extensive studies by the North Carolina Geologic Survey show that much of the salable land in Western North Carolina is susceptible to landslides. These areas include: steep slopes, usually greater than 30 degrees, embankments or fills, cut or excavated slopes, hillside depressions or hollows near streams and springs, eroded or undercut streams or river banks, areas below steep mountain slopes, areas on hills or mountainsides where runoff accumulates, disturbed or modified slopes on mountainsides, areas where roads cross drainage or streams on mountainsides. The North Carolina Geological Survey issues landslide advisories whenever extensive rain is forecast for the region.

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.

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.

It should be noted that in the following article there is no mention of the Buncombe County hazard map or the location of the Cliffs at High Carolina on that map.

"Cliffs can dodge building limits" By Mark Barrett

Asheville Citizen-Times January 12, 2008

Developers of the Cliffs at High Carolina can put condominiums or town houses on property in Fairview without regard to Buncombe County rules severely restricting multi-family units in some places, a judge has ruled.

Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Ronald Payne ruled last month The Cliffs Communities had moved so far ahead with plans to build on property north of Spring Mountain Road that the company has "vested rights" that trump an ordinance county commissioners adopted in March 2007.

The property is part of a huge luxury development to include around 2,500 acres or more in Fairview and Swannanoa and, most likely, more than 1,000 homes.

The county ordinance limits the density of condominium or apartment complexes on land from 2,500 to 2,999 feet in elevation to one unit per two acres in buildings no taller than 35 feet. Above 3,000 feet, the limits are one unit per four acres and 2 feet in height.

Mores homes?

It is unclear whether the decision will result in more homes than earlier planned on the property or if The Cliffs will simply build about the same number but make some of them multifamily units.

"The final decision has not been made" as to how many homes and what kind will be built on the land, Jim Anthony, CEO of South Carolina-based The Cliffs Communities, said in a statement. He did say The Cliffs will move ahead with a "wellness village" to include condominiums and town houses and health and exercise facilities.

Attorneys for the winners and losers said it is unlikely many, if any, other property owners would be affected by the ruling.

Word that The Cliffs was assembling land for an upscale development that will take property on the south side of Swannanoa and in Fairview's northeast corner got out in the summer of 2006, although The Cliffs says it has been working on the project since 2004.

Just before the multifamily ordinance was adopted, The Cliffs asked Buncombe County to allow it to move ahead with condominiums and town houses regardless. The county declined and The Cliffs later sued to preserve its rights.

Anthony said his company is "very pleased to have the opportunity to move forward with the wellness village we planned as a cornerstone for The Cliffs at High Carolina" and that the development "will become a tremendous asset for western Carolina. "

Commissioner David Gantt said he is disappointed by the decision and that "there will be more development in the project than there would have been under the existing rules."

"I just hope The Cliffs continues to be sensitive to the community makeup," Gantt said.

Commissioners have not decided whether to appeal Payne's ruling, Assistant County Michael Frue said.

County government approved a plan last year that showed 733 single-family home lots and a golf course on a portion of The Cliffs' Fairview property that is about the same area as the 966 acres affected by Payne's ruling.

But a rough plan that included condominiums and town houses that The Cliffs submitted as part of its effort to be exempted from the ordinance actually called for fewer homes in the same area. It shows the golf course, 197 single-family lots, 106 duplex units, 300 quadruplex units and 100 units in larger condominium buildings-a total of 703 dwelling units.

Work proceeding

Anthony said his company hopes to make an announcement related to the golf course, being designed by Tiger Woods, in the coming months. Later in the year it will announce details of the first offering for sale of lots in the development he said.

Plans submitted to Buncombe County last June say The Cliffs had acquired almost 2,500 acres for the project. It is likely to include a total of more than 1,000 homes.

The Cliffs said in its lawsuit that it had paid about $45.1 million for property in Fairview by the time the multifamily ordinance was adopted in March and had contracted to so spend another $9.4 million for more land. That doesn't include an oral agreement with Buncombe County Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey and his brother Franklin for The Cliffs to buy 190 acres from the Ramseys for $3.7 million.

The Cliffs said it had also spent more than $3 million on legal, planning and related work on the project by that point.

Other impacts

David Owens, a professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government who specializes in land-use law, said developers can acquire vested rights for a project if they have made substantial investment in a specific project and can show they are actively working on the project before new rules affected it are adopted.

"The fact that you wanted someday to build an apartment building on (property) doesn't mean anything... You've got to act on your intentions," he said.

Both Frue and Phillip Anderson, who represented The Cliffs in the case, said the company's situation appears to be "unique" and that they expect other property owners to be able to ignore the county multifamily ordinance.

The Cliffs filed plans for part of its development in 2006 ahead of the effectiveness of a county ordinance on steep slope development. In response to community concerns, it subsequently said it would build according to the ordinance.

The multifamily ordinance, however, would have had a "potentially devastating effect" on the Cliffs plans making the lawsuit necessary, Anthony said.

Earl Crawford, who lives downhill from the Fairview property, said he doesn't have a strong preference as to whether The Cliffs builds single-family homes or condominiums.

"I hate to see them tear the mountain up," he said, although, "It's not been bad so far."

Staff writer Clarke Morrison contributed to this story.

Landslides Destroy Homes in Southern California and Western North Carolina

Landslide in Anaheim Hills, California

Landslides are ever present threats to lives and property in Southern California and Western North Carolina. The following two articles illustrate the dangers of building on ancient landslide deposits.

Dream homes slip away by Megan Sever, Geotimes April 2005

Last January and February, a number of Southern California residents lost their homes in landslides. As record amounts of rain fell on the region, hillsides failed and sent million-dollar homes, swimming pools, cars and lives cascading into the valleys below. Three homeowners, however, lost their houses to a different type of landslide-a slow-moving one that is now raising concerns about building regulations and natural hazards in California and elsewhere.

This multimillion-dollar home in Anaheim, Calif., has cracked over the last several months due to a slow-moving landslide and has since had to be demolished. Questions remain about why exactly this home and others were built on the site in the first place. Courtesy of John Nicoletti, City of Anaheim.

A few years ago, construction began on three multimillion-dollar homes on Ramsgate Drive in affluent Anaheim Hills neighborhood of Orange County. Two of the homes were finished and inhabited, and one was still under construction. Before this winter's heavy rain set in, one of the homeowners noticed a crack in the foundation of his house. Over the coming weeks, the homeowners called in city inspectors and consulting geologists, who noticed more cracks and subsequently tested the soil and incline on the hill. After further earth movement followed heavy rains, they ultimately determined that the homes were atop a slow-moving landslide and that one of the houses must be demolished to save the other two, says John Nicoletti, spokesman for the City of Anaheim.

Unfortunately, Nicoletti says, in the end, it was a futile effort, as one home was demolished and the other two have been "red-tagged": they are uninhabitable, and demolition is pending. Now, the nature of the hillside-an unstable ancient landslide deposit deep beneath layers of recent fill material -and the civil engineering of the homes sites are sparking debate over why these structures cracked and were demolished. And the question of who was responsible, Nicoletti says, will likely lead to litigation.

From the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, the California Geological Survey mapped most of the landslides-from ancient to probable future ones-throughout the state, under a state landslide mapping act, says John Parrish, executive officer of the California State Mining & Geology Board. Since then, under a seismic hazard act, the survey has continued monitoring landslide-prone regions and revising maps as necessary.

The maps show areas that are susceptible to landslide movement and that "probably are unsafe to build on without specific engineering" designed to counteract nature, Parrish says. Released on April 15, 1998, the Anaheim Hills quadrangle map "showed specifically that the location on Ramsgate Drive that failed was considered highly likely to be subject to landslide movement," Parrish says. "All three houses were built since that map was released, and all three houses slid. It's not surprising."

In California, a seismic hazards disclosure law requires prospective home or land sellers to inform potential buyers if the property is within a seismic hazard zone that includes landslides, says Charles Buckley, an engineering geologist with California Environmental Geologists and Engineers, Inc., in Camarillo, Calif. That disclosure should include whether or not the land is an ancient landslide deposit, as mapped by the California survey, he says, and all of the paperwork should be on file with the city or county.

Before a house is built, homeowners must submit construction plans with a geologic assessment of the land and engineering plan to the city or county planning departments, which should compare the hazard maps to the plans before approving construction, Parrish says. However, Nicoletti says, most cities or counties, including the city of Anaheim, do not have the resources to individually examine each property's geology, so they have to rely on the owners and the geology consultants to do that. Furthermore, he says, "when a person invests $2.5 million in a piece of dream property, it's difficult for us to say to someone 'you can't build your dream home there' if their consultant says that they can."

And that seems to be where the problem lies, Parrish says. "Somewhere along the line, someone dropped the ball," he says, and "right now, the attorneys for the homeowners whose homes were demolished are busily trying to figure out who that was. "Either "the city should have never approved the plan because the engineering plan for construction wasn't solid or the geotechnical work was faulty for some unknown reason," says Stephen Testa, president of Testa Environmental Corporation in Mokelumne Hill, Calif. (and president of the American Geological Institute, which publishes Geotimes). "As of now there is no readily available answer, but you can be assured one will come."

In the meantime, Testa says, state, county or city agencies in charge of planning need to take more of a leadership role in approving or not approving projects. Indeed, Buckley says, "a regulatory review by the agencies is an important and necessary part of the building process." Too many projects sneak through that shouldn't, he says, and if the cities don't have geologists on staff, "they can farm the work out."

Still, Buckley says, with the large amount of rain that the region has gotten over the past few months-more than 32 inches since July-this year's weather situation seems a testament to modern geological engineering. Most of the homes on the hillsides that did fail, he says, were built prior to state ordinances that require landslide mitigation engineering.

The Hunters Crossing Landslide...It's Still Moving by Lynne Vogel

Press Release October 2007

After the massive 15 county slope failures of September 2004, the North Carolina Geologic Survey began a landslide mapping study for the western region of the state. Western North Carolina has long been identified as a high risk natural landslide hazard zone but the catastrophic multi-county events prompted greater scrutiny over the causes and effects of these disastrous occurrences.

In November 2005 Rick Wooten PG, a senior geologist with the North Carolina Geologic Survey, was asked to investigate earth movement at the Hunters Crossing residences in Waynesville, North Carolina. The property owners had noticed cracks in their basement walls and were observing growing fissures and crevices in their yards and parking areas. Studies show that this landslide is an active, very slow to slow, rotational weathered-rock slide, that encompasses a 1.5 acre of 65,000 cubic yards of completely decomposed rock that is moving downhill at the rate of inches per month.

This type of slide is identified as a Big Slow Mover and engineering reports indicate that this creeping earth movement cannot be controlled or stopped. The moving land is destroying two condominiums, affecting a third, and is damaging three homes at the base of the slope. The Hunters Crossing families have discovered that they own worthless assets. The state is unwilling to buy back their property and state insurance policies exclude all damage caused by earth movement. It should be noted that if Haywood County had required site specific safety studies this mountain property would not have been developed.

All owners and prospective buyers of mountain slope property in Western North Carolina should be aware and seriously concerned that development permits for home sites and access roads do not require the proven safeguards of landslide mapping and site specific stability testing.

Please visit Heather Gregory:Investigation of a Slow-Moving Landslide: Hunters Crossing
Subdivision Waynesville, NC for photographs of the landslide damage.

For accurate information about the dangers of Western North Carolina landslides please contact the North Carolina Geological Survey.