Sunday, March 1, 2009

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.

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