Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Haywood County Fails to Protect Homeowners from Landslide

Photographs of the home on 93 Wildcat Run Road before and after the January 7, 2009 landslide.

Tragedy always stirs the media and occasionally awakens dozing regulators.

The recent tragedy: a 300 foot-landslide that flattened a three story Maggie Valley, North Carolina residence on Wildcat Run Road. Bruce and Lorraine Donin, who were at home, survived. Rick Wooten, a senior geologist for the N.C. Geological Survey who investigated the site, said “It wasn’t so much that the house that was destroyed was located on a steep slope, it just got hit by a landslide that would have knocked any house over that wasn’t bombproof.”

Is the County Responsible for the Donins’ Property Loss?

The building permit for 93 Wildcat Run Road was issued in 2004: the home was completed in 2007.

In 1998 and again in 2004 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Mangement cautioned all Western North Carolina municipalities that mountain land under their jurisdiction was extremely hazardous.

Haywood County officials became acutely aware of landslide hazards in December 2003 when Patricia ( Trish) Jones, a resident of Maggie Valley, was killed by a landslide.

The Asheville Citizen-Times advised on January 10, 2009 that the county knew about the imminent landslide threat. Two reports, one from the Haywood County Erosion and Sediment Control Office and the other from a private engineering company indicated that the slope above the Donins' home was showing signs of collapse. Tim Surrett, an erosion control inspector, sent the following 2006 notice to the homeowners above the slide: “We have concerns about the slope just past your home. It appears to be exhibiting signs of failure. Please have your plan designer or other qualified person have a look at it.”

Alpha Environmental Services, Inc., the engineering firm employed by the homeowners above the slide, issued a report in 2005 that stated “this area will most likely continue to erode until the slope gives way and slides.”

The Donins' attorney, David Wijewickrama, is asking whether the county did anything to prevent the landslide. He said that county documents show that no action was taken to prevent the slide.

Marc Pruett, director of the county's erosion control office, told the Asheville Citizen-Times that "Inspectors at the time had no authority to order that work be done to shore up the slope."

In an interview with Vicki Hyatt, editor of the Mountaineer, Mr. Pruett pointed to a county map showing the Donin home site, and said there have been landslides both above and below it, as well as across the mountain top in the Villages of Plott Creek Development. The area has 30 to 50 percent natural slopes and is characterized by the same soil type. "These soils are poorly suited to building site development because of the large stones and the slope," according to the "Soil Survey of Haywood County Area."

There are other pertinent questions: why were building permits issued in a known hazardous area and why didn’t county inspectors warn neighborhood residents of the impending danger?

County officials cannot plead ignorance. Haywood County, along with all the other mountain counties in Western North Carolina have experienced serious to catastrophic landslide damage.

Haywood County is not immune from lawsuits. The United States Supreme Court ruled in April 2006 that cities, counties, and other levels of government below that of the states themselves are not protected by the general immunity from suits that states enjoy in federal court.

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