Friday, March 27, 2009

Western North Carolina Real Estate Landslide Advisory: “You’re not thinking a mountain is going to fall on your house.”

Asheville Citizen-Times photos of recent Maggie Valley landslides. The Moody home and what used to be the Donin home.

On March 1, 2009 Western North Carolina mountain property owners were surprised to learn that their homes, and possibly their lives are threatened by landslides. Why didn't they know? Because North Carolina does not require hazardous land disclosure.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Asheville Citizen-Times and the North Carolina Geological Survey, the public is now aware that much of the mountain real estate in the 23-county region known as Western North Carolina is landslide-hazardous. The newspaper’s, “ Homes in harm’s way on many WNC slopes," report verifies with the use of landslide maps and property records that approximately 1000 Watauga County residences and 300 lots are endangered by highly unstable slopes. Hazardous home sites in the other 22 counties have not been identified.

Weighing the Risks and Costs

Three Haywood County families wish that someone had explained the repercussions of investing in mountain real estate. On January 7, 2009 rain set off two landslides in Maggie Valley. The first destroyed Bruce and Lorraine Donins' Wild Acres home. There are unresolved legal issues for Ed and Pamela McAloon, the Donins' upslope neighbors. It was a section of their lot that fell and demolished the Donin residence. Haywood County has advised the McAloons that they are responsible for stabilizing their home site. Costs are unknown.

Walter Moody, owner of the second landslide-impacted property, told the Asheville Citizen-Times that a major portion of his lot collapsed and is resting 125 yards down a mountain slope. Joyce and Walter Moody’s home now sits 5 feet from the edge of the slope failure: cost to repair $400,000. Mr. Moody doesn’t blame anyone for his real estate loss but he notes the consequences:
When we built this house we put our savings into it. But today, what we know is that it wouldn't have made any difference if I put my money in the stock market or I put it into this house because I am going to wind up with basically the same thing — and that's nothing.
Landslide insurance: It isn’t available

In a recent e-mail Loretta Worters, vice president of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute told the Asheville Citizen-Times:

The present condition of allowing increasing waves of unregulated (or loosely regulated) haphazard growth to occur along these mountain ridges and slopes is likely to result in more houses being destroyed by landslides. Insuring a home that has a very high potential of having a landslide is akin to insuring a burning building; it just doesn’t make good sense.
The Asheville Citizen-Times has determined that landslide insurance is not obtainable.

Reporter Jordan Schrader asked Nikki Donin if her parents had considered landslides or insurance protection when they built their Wild Acres home. Her reply, “You’re not thinking a mountain is going to fall on your house.”

Property Values

Watauga County property owners should be asking why their homes are sitting in the path of potential landslides. Did the county know that that these building sites were not safe? Although county governments are unwilling to acknowledge the fact, they were all notified in 1998 by the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management that Western North Carolina mountain slopes were landslide-prone and highly hazardous.

Prior to the Asheville Citizen-Times landslide public-awareness initiative prospective buyers didn't know to ask, "Is this home site safe?" Now they do.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Will FEMA deny funding for the next Western North Carolina landslide disasters?

Peeks Creek landslide September 2004. Photo compliments
Alan Marler

In September 2004 the mountain counties of North Carolina were in a state of emergency after rainfall-activated landslides caused loss of life and massive property destruction. Governor Mike Easley requested and the state received two federal disaster declarations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $72 million in aid.

FEMA requires post-disaster hazard mitigation planning

Federal emergency management professionals know that landslides are predictable and preventable disasters. In an effort to reduce the incidence of these costly catastrophes, Congress amended the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act in 2000.

To qualify for federal disaster assistance, all states must adopt strict hazard mitigation standards or risk losing access to emergency funds. Section 322 of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 requires that all State mitigation plans:

(1) identify the natural hazards, risks, and vulnerabilities of areas in the State;

(2) support development of local mitigation plans;

(3) provide for technical assistance to local and tribal governments for mitigation planning and

(4) identify and prioritize mitigation actions that the State will support, as resources become available.

The North Carolina State Hazard Mitigation Plan/Update of October 2007:

This… Plan was developed to help serve the people of North Carolina by providing impetus for making our homes…as safe as possible against the impacts of …natural hazards….Therefore, this Plan is designed to be (1)informative, (2) strategic and (3) functional in nature. The Plan finds that the state meets federal requirements and remains qualified to obtain disaster assistance.
Is this statement true? Is the state in compliance with federal mandates? The answer is no.

The following facts demonstrate that the State Hazard Mitigation Plan is in violation of federal statutes.

Absence of hazardous land regulation

In 1998 the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management warned state legislators and county commissioners that the mountain region known as Western North Carolina was landslide-hazardous. If there was confusion concerning the accuracy of the report, the disasters of September 2004 should have made the probability crystal clear. Eleven years later no county government has made any meaningful attempt to control hazardous land development.

Western North Carolina landslide hazard mapping delayed

The post-disasters landslide hazard mapping program was authorized by the General Assembly in February 2005. Today only 2 series of probability maps have been completed for the region. The Macon (2006) and Watauga (2008) hazard maps show that much of the mountainous land in these two counties is likely to experience slope failures. The North Carolina Geological Survey has identified thousands of homes that have been built on landslides or in their paths. These "Homes in harm's way," will be affected, it is only a question of when.

No hazardous land disclosure

Landslides and their devastating personal and financial costs remain a well-kept secret. County governments fail to warn residents and real estate purchasers of property-damaging landslide and unstable soil issues. Realtors are not obliged to reveal the region's high-risk hazard designation or the existence of the mapping program.

Rhetoric but no action

The North Carolina General Assembly passed the Hurricane Recovery Act in 2005 and this is what the legislators said about landslides:
Hurricanes Frances and Ivan wrought havoc upon Western North Carolina impacting the region on a scale not experienced before in that area of the State. 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 mapping for the region so that homes may be built in safe areas.
The state has deliberately exposed Western North Carolina residents to avoidable hazards. The question is, when the next landslide disasters occur, will Washington provide the critical emergency funds?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Extraordinary Costs to Repair Maggie Valley Landslide

Walter Moody standing in front of the Bear Creek Road landslide
Photo Asheville Citizen-Times

No one is certain but authorities guess that on or around January 7, 2009 rain caused a massive portion of a Maggie Valley mountain lot to collapse and slide down its steep slope. The corner of the Bear Creek Road residence is now sitting 5 feet from open space. Costs for a landslide stability-assessment report, $10,000; remediation expense, $400,000. The property owners, Walter and Joyce Moody, have been informed that they are responsible for stabilizing the slope.

The Bear Creek Road slope failure was reported in the March 13, 2009 article, "Landslide threatens Maggie Valley home," and is part of the Asheville Citizen-Times “Homes in harm’s way” landslide-awareness initiative.

Walter Moody is publicizing Western North Carolina's landslide real estate risks. This is what he had to say about the construction of his Maggie Valley mountain retirement home:
Everything was done according to code. In fact, it exceeded code in many areas. Building inspectors signed off on everything, confirming that it met code. (Parts of the foundation) are anchored in bedrock. So even if the front edge of the home failed, the back portion that’s on rock would still stand. Also, the soil in front of the home doesn’t show the same degree of softness, and surveyors have looked for cracks and found none ... Is the house safe? Yes. Is it sellable? Not with the slide.

When we built this house we put our savings into it. But today, what we know is that it wouldn't have made any difference if I put my money in the stock market or I put it into this house because I am going to wind up with basically the same thing — and that's nothing.
Am I blaming this on anybody? No. But I have a concern. I have a concern we are going to see more of this. And there is nothing that you or I can do to stop it until it occurs.
Mr. Moody foresees a bleak financial future for many other property owners and his words are true. There is nothing that can be done to prevent landslides from wrecking and destroying homes: All Western North Carolina mountain real estate is designated landslide-hazardous.

For additional information concerning the Moody landslide please read the following articles:

"Landslide threatens Maggie Valley home,"

"Another slide in Maggie prompts study"

"Landslide leaves home teetering"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hazardous Land Development Should be under State Control

On March 3, 2009 the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that realty groups and some legislators are absolutely opposed to any state regulation over Western North Carolina’s hazardous land development. These parties say that risk-assessment, mandated construction standards, and hazardous land disclosure statements are unnecessary.

The Facts Indicate Otherwise

Western North Carolina county governments have knowingly, and without constraint, jeopardized lives and property by failing to enact landslide-prevention regulations. Unbeknownst to buyers all mountain counties were notified by emergency management professionals in 1998 that the land under their jurisdiction was landslide-prone and highly hazardous.

Hazard maps for Watauga (2008) and Macon (2006) counties show that thousands of homes are sitting in the path of potential landslides. Many of these residences were built in the last ten years. These victimized owners are now being informed that there is no landslide insurance and that their property will be labeled landslide-hazardous.

Other Hazardous Matters…

Landslides are not the only geologic hazard endangering Western North Carolina mountain building sites. Federal and state professionals who have investigated and mapped the region over the past several decades have determined that weak reactive mountain soils undermine building locations throughout the 23 counties that comprise Western North Carolina.

Unstable soils, are definable and measurable geologic hazards that threaten lives and property. Extensive soil stability tests have established that most mountain slopes are “unsuitable” or “poorly suitable” for residential development.

Soil assessment surveys for the following Western North Carolina counties: Ashe, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, McDowell, Madison, Rutherford and Yancey can be viewed on the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation website.

Surveys for the remaining counties: Alleghany, Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Mitchell, Surry, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, and Wilkes can be found in local Soil and Conservation offices.

Homes in Harm’s Way

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported on March 1, 2009 that there are “homes in harm’s way” all over Western North Carolina. It is too late for these property owners but there is no defensible reason for these egregious hazardous land practices to continue.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Asheville's Landslide Hazardous Real Estate

Are you planning on buying mountain real estate in the Asheville area? If so, you should read “Homes in harm’s way on many WNC slopes.” This March 1, 2009 Asheville Citizen-Times report details the dangers and financial risks of buying a home in 23 landslide hazardous Western North Carolina counties.

Jon Ostendorff opens his article with the January 7, 2009 Maggie Valley landslide tragedy. It is now known that this property destroying event was predictable and preventable. The causative factors: absence of hazardous land regulation, failure to disclose geologic hazards to prospective buyers and rain on a neighbor’s upslope unstable home site.
The North Carolina Geological Survey states that they have evidence of 861 landslides in Buncombe County. A substantial number of these slope failures were triggered by construction activities. The City of Asheville and Buncombe County planning departments have contributed to property owners’ risks by failing to require hazard studies as a condition for mountain subdivision permits. The following subdivisions were not mapped for landslides: The Cliffs at High Carolina, Ciel, Brittain Knob, Phoenix Cove, Town Mountain Cove, Reynolds Mountain, The Settings of Black Mountain, Versant ( in bankruptcy), Crest Mountain and Southcliff.

Landslide Disasters...Will Asheville Property Owners Become the Next Victims?

The City of Colorado Springs’ multiple 1990s landslide disasters offer examples of what happens to property owners when hazardous land development is controlled by the real estate industry. With full knowledge of the risks, the City of Colorado Springs’ planning department permitted unrestrained residential development in identified hazardous areas.

The consequences of the city’s reckless actions became apparent in the spring of 1995 when a landslide wrecked homes in the expensive Regency Ridge neighborhood. Under public pressure after this prophetic event, the city passed restrictive subdivision guidelines in 1996. New regulations under the Colorado Springs Geologic Hazards Ordinance required that all suspect building sites be assessed for unstable soils and landslides.

These, after the fact, regulations did nothing to protect already built homes from the next series of devastating landslides. In the spring of 1999 rain set off landslides in dozens of neighborhoods throughout the city. As a result Colorado Springs was declared a federal disaster area.

Hazard maps show that perhaps 5,000 homes, many priced at half a million dollars and more,(2000 valuations) have been built on landslide-probable slopes.

Donna Fair, director of the city Office of Emergency Management, said after the disaster declaration 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 home owners remain silent out of fear for their property values.

If you have any doubt about the likelihood of landslides causing extreme property damage in Buncombe County or elsewhere in Western North Carolina you should read Bob Campbell’s article, "Risky Business, The politics of landslides-and building on landslides-in Colorado Springs." The culprits are the same.

Please remember as you weigh the risks that come with slope-side ownership you will be self-insuring for all landslide/earth movement related property damage. This hazard is not covered by your homeowners policy.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Haywood County Commissioners Acknowledge Need for Landslide Hazard Maps

The Board of Commissioners disclosed during their February 2, 2009 meeting that landslides are serious threats to Haywood County residents.

In their petition to the General Assembly for hazard mapping the Commissioners stressed the fact that “Haywood County has experienced numerous landslides in recent years, with two in the first month of 2009.” The Board requests that Haywood County be hazard-mapped at “the state’s earliest opportunity.” In an unusual move the Commissioners asked for a state-funded landslide insurance program.

History of Haywood County Hazardous Land Development

Haywood County officials cannot plead ignorance of geologic hazards nor can they deny that they have knowingly permitted hazardous land development. In 1998 emergency management professionals under state direction notified Haywood and twenty-two other Western North Carolina county governments that land under their jurisdiction was perilous. In addition to ignoring landslide risks Haywood County officials have dismissed local soil assessments. These critical specific surveys have determined that much of the county’s mountain soil composition is unstable and thus unsuitable for residential development. The January 7, 2009 Maggie Valley landslide was triggered by water-reactive soils.

Hazardous Land Resolution

Haywood County Commissioners did not address the important question of whether they will continue to allow hazardous land development. Landslide maps may not be forthcoming from the state. It has been more than four years since the General Assembly allocated funds for these safety studies and only two counties have been mapped. The maps for Macon (2006) and Watauga (2008) show that thousands of homes have been built in the path of prior landslides. It is unknown how many residences are resting on highly unstable soils.

The county does not need to wait for landslide hazard maps. If the commissioners are serious about protecting Haywood county residents from future landslides and soil related property damage they will pass a hazardous land ordinance. These “Is it safe to build here” statutes have been enacted by numerous states and municipalities. They require safety/feasibility studies for all at-risk residential building sites.

The costs for evaluations are reasonable and would be underwritten by those applying for a hazardous-land building permit. A single lot can be surveyed for less than $2,000. The Town of Boone was hazard mapped for $20,000. Building permits would be predicated on professional recommendations: If the proposed site is deemed unsafe, permits would be denied.

Hazardous Land Disclosure Statement

Since prospective buyers have no knowledge of or protection from geologic hazards Haywood County real estate transactions would include the following fair warning statement:
Please be advised that you are purchasing real estate in a geologically hazardous county. There is no insurance available to cover landslide or soil-related residential damage. Publication of the Haywood County hazard maps may affect the value of real property.
Legal Jeopardy

North Carolina legislators have declined to regulate hazardous land construction practices and they do not believe that soon-to-be property owners should be apprised of geologic hazards.

The state has protection from lawsuits under the doctrine of sovereign immunity but county governments do not.

Is Haywood County Responsible for the Maggie Valley Landslide?

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

On January 7, 2009 a section of Ed and Pamela McAloons' Wild Acres lot slipped down its steep embankment and crushed the house below. Bruce and Lorraine Donin who were at home survived the 300-foot swift-moving landslide.

This is the second tragedy in the Wild Acres subdivision. Trish Jones was killed in December 2003 when a mountain slope failed and destroyed her home. The Jones’ landslide was caused by saturated soils from a fractured water main. Marc Pruett, head of the Haywood County erosion control department, said that the January slope failure was triggered by rain on highly unstable soils.

Haywood County has a long repetitive history of property damaging landslides but this information is and will likely remain a well-kept secret unless the General Assembly forces real estate disclosure.

The McAloon Landslide

When the McAloons purchased their lot they received no state or county warning that the land for their home site was geologically hazardous nor were they told that a landslide had killed a neighborhood resident.

Prior to building their home the couple hired a private engineering firm to evaluate slope stability. The engineering report by Alpha Environmental Sciences, Inc. found that two on-site slopes were problematic and subject to slope failure.

During various construction phases from 2006 thru 2007 the property owners were advised by county erosion control personnel that, “We have concerns about the slope just past your home. It appears to be exhibiting signs of failure. Please have you plan designer, or another qualified person have a look at it.” At the time of the final erosion control inspection in January 2007 county officials noted that the McAloons had not repaired the slope. They wrote another recommendation advising the property owners to seek professional advice. The McAloon soil erosion control report was closed and forgotten until January 7, 2009.

There is no evidence to suggest that the McAloons were told that their eroding land posed an imminent threat to anyone other than to themselves. The Donin home had not been built when erosion control officials suggested remedial measures. If county engineers believed that the McAloon slope was in danger of collapse they had a clear obligation to warn the Donins when they applied for their building permit but they didn't.

The McAloons are facing a potential lawsuit and are being tasked with the expense of shoring up their failed slope. The Haywood County engineering review board acknowledged that remediation of the slope is going to be a long term complicated endeavor. Mark Shumpert, County Engineer, told the Smoky Mountain News in early February that, “Access to the site is going to be very difficult.”

Bruce and Lorraine Donin have no home and no resources; Ed and Pamela McAloon own a landslide-prone, perhaps impossible to stabilize, piece of real estate. It is unknown how these landslide-linked property owners’ attorneys will respond.

The facts show that the county is primarily responsible for the landslide. They issued the permit for a hazardous home site.