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.

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