Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Haywood County Landslide Disaster Photos

For years local environmental officers have expressed alarm about Haywood County's unregulated building practices. On March 27, 2006 Marc Pruett told Haywood County commissioners, "Currently anyone with a bulldozer and backhoe can carve out home sites and roads into the mountainside. This lack of engineering is causing homes and roads to slide down the mountain throughout the county."

On January 7, 2009 a Maggy Valley home was demolished by a predictable landslide. Lawsuits are looming, so it is important to ask when did regulators know about the consequences of hazardous land development?

Mr. Schmerker's article addresses this question.

"Disappearing Haywood" by Jeff Schmerker, The Enterprise-Mountaineer, October 31, 2005.

County to craft ordinance aimed at halting erosion

If you ever get the chance to see Marc Pruett’s erosion control disaster slide show by all means, watch it.

Pruett’s diorama is a hundred or so photos that depict in shocking detail the worst of Haywood County residential development. There are photos of roads splintered into tiny bits as the slopes underneath them give way. There are images of streams running dark brown, choked with silt from unmitigated erosion. There are pictures of cut slopes so steep they have been reduced to constantly avalanching gullies.

And then there are the homes. Pruett has pictures of houses being slapped on one side by landslides and falling off deliriously steep slopes on the other, homes whose yards are riddled with gaping crevasses as the land pulls away beneath them, homes whose foundations have cracked, some of the cracks so big daylight shines through them, and pictures of homes literally being torn apart as the unstable ground they sit on gives way. Pruett, the county’s erosion control program director, who showed his slides Tuesday night to a gathering of county officials and environmental workers, said in nearly every case the culprit was the same: shoddy building practices in unsafe terrain.

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners is looking into a new set of standards to combat the effects, both personal and environmental, of slope development.

Commissioners have said they would like to see recommendations on a plan in January. Pruett told that group that in many cases the erosion nightmares are the result of poor education, or bad decision-making, in areas saddled by steep slopes and bad soils. The goal in writing such a plan, he said, would not be to hinder development, just to ease erosion.

“My personal opinion is that we do not need to look at mandating densities of development or prohibiting development,” Pruett said after the meeting. “We need to allow development wherever people want to build, but get them to build a little bit better.

Traditionally, said Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe, some builders have resisted similar ordinances.

So the challenge, she added, is finding a solution that protects mountainsides and residents, while allowing home and road building.

“A lot of the time, folks from the flat country don’t realize the challenge in purchasing mountain land,” Enloe said. But the workshop’s big turnout shows that the community is taking the issue seriously. “It is a heavy responsibility to meet that challenge of protecting our hillsides and mountainsides while not prohibiting people from being about to build a house and build a road into that house,” she said. “The roads to houses are sometimes as much of a problem as anything else.”

Pruett said any recommendations would likely focus on development practices in areas where the soils are known to be challenging for development. But setting standards for development in concert with soil mapping is complicated, he warned. Crafting a workable solution will require input from a variety of sources, and Pruett said he hopes the public weighs in.

“I feel like unsuspecting buyers need to be protected to some extent,” Pruett said. “We should probably look at the long term-effects (of erosion) and find reasonable regulations for the greater good. There is a considerable amount of construction work and land disturbing being undertaken in areas where we do not know enough about the soil.” Pat Tilley, who is leading the planning department’s subcommittee which is investigating ordinances, said she commends the county commission for taking the issue on. Hopefully, she said, the municipalities will adopt rules identical to the county’s so guidelines are uniform.

“What we need is protection for property owners,” she said. “After the house is built, the developer and the builder are gone.”

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