Sunday, June 28, 2009

Buyers Should Beware Haywood County Mountain Real Estate

Photograph of landslide property damage in Haywood County—The Enterprise Mountaineer—May 21, 2003

The Asheville Citizen-Times March 1, 2009, "Homes in harm's way on many WNC slopes," hazardous-land series was prompted by a life-threatening landslide tragedy in Haywood County. The Donin landslide, January 7, 2009, was triggered by rain on highly-unstable soils, the most common cause of slope failures. Were Haywood County officials aware of the potential for disaster? The answer is yes.

Here is a copy of an archived news report describing the devastation caused by the spring rains of May 2003.

The Enterprise Mountaineer
May 21, 2003

“Little protection in case of mud slides” by Charles White
With news reports of a house that had to be evacuated after heavy rains damaged the driveway, people are left to wonder how the houses were allowed to be built on steep slopes in the first place.

This has been a growing concern for many Haywood County residents since the heavy rains in early May.

The prospect of having the ground literally crumble beneath their feet has raised several people’s eyebrows and suggested a number of deeper questions about county land management and homeowner responsibility.

Marc Pruett with the Haywood County Department of Erosion and Sedimentation regrets that as the current county policy is set up, it is often a case of buyer beware when it comes to purchasing mountain property for a building site.

Pruett said that some surrounding communities employ slope ordinances and storm water run-off standards to good effect, but without zoning in Haywood County, these types of safeguards cannot be enforced.

“Unfortunately at this point in time, we are reactive instead of proactive in our approach to this problem,” Pruett said.

Finding out first hand

The driveway collapse at a house on Paradise Circle in the Crabtree community is an example of building on the side of a mountain. After days of heavy rain, Sidney and Delores Hitt had to leave their home until repairs can be made.

The Hitts learned a tough lesson when they found out their insurance company would not pay for damage as a result of the rain and subsequent driveway collapse. Insurance companies maintain a policy of not issuing any protection for homeowners against mud slides.

The bad news did not end there. The Hitts then found themselves facing another problem as neighbors who lived above them on the private road could not safely drive to their homes unless repairs were made to the road where it met the Hitts’ driveway. Now possible litigation may follow as the group of homeowners are considering action against the county, the Hitts’ insurance company or the Hitts.

Another similar landslide controversy took place in the Horseshoe Cove community in Maggie Valley when mud slides blocked and damaged privately maintained roads.

Pam Williams, who lives in the Horseshoe Cove community said she is upset with the placement of the draining system, which uses culverts. She said that as a result of the poor drainage, a small river slices through her backyard every time it rains.

Now, with roads damaged and unsafe for car travel, Williams wants to know who is responsible to pay for the damages. She has consulted an attorney to look over the closing contract on her home to determine who is culpable.

Williams said she thinks the developer, Don Condren, could be responsible.

Condren agreed the road needed repairs, but disagreed with who would have to pay for those repairs.

“It is up to the individual homeowners to make those repairs, “ Condren said.

Condren said that he paid for the development of the community eight years ago, and that he no longer owns any of the property.

Condren said if the Horseshoe Community had a homeowners’ association, it would be easier for the residents to make repairs.

But Williams said she does not think each homeowner should pick up the tab for damages she thinks were caused by poor planning. She organized a meeting with fellow homeowners and will have a lawyer available to answer questions about the Creekside controversy at the Maggie Valley Town Hall May 31.

Condren has dealt with homeowners’ grievances with stormwater drainage in the past. In the early 1990s, Condren settled out of court with a homeowners’ association when another of his developments further down a mountain flooded, and homeowners complained that the drainage system Condren built was inadequate.

Potential growth thwart

One question raised about land stability is to what extent is the county responsible for notifying homeowners of the soundness of a particular building site.

Kris Boyd, the director of planning with the Haywood County Planning Department, said the answer is not so simple and relies heavily on dollars and cents.

Boyd said the county was responsible for issuing a building permit and a septic permit, but they were not in the business of hiring an environmental engineer, issuing slope-density requirements or performing core-drillings.

However, Boyd did say the county could protect a homeowner’s property if ordinances were passed.

“Water is a powerful thing, and it will find a natural path,” Boyd said.

The problem with taking land-planning measures is that they would require zoning and a land-use ordinance to be passed by county commissioners.

“That sort of thing is very expensive and any official land-planning ordinances might prohibit development, Boyd said.

There has been some discussion of a possible land-use study, but no proposal for a comprehensive zoning plan, which would include the inspections of environmental engineers or slope-density measurements, Boyd said.

Boyd said that he felt the county’s role in terms of new housing should be minimal.

“The home buyer has to take some kind of personal responsibility,” Boyd said.

Many homeowners feel like they are being left in the dark when it comes to the security and stability of their lots.

“The ordinary homeowner doesn’t understand what needs to be done ( to ensure the lot is stable),” Williams said.

For Williams, the lack of information has led to growing frustration, and with legal action looming on the horizon, she wants better answers.



Other Haywood County Hazardous-Land Events

In December 2003 a broken water main led to a landslide that killed Trish Jones, a Maggie Valley resident. Hunters Crossing property owners were forced to abandon their homes in November 2005 because of a large slow-moving landslide. The January 2009 Moody landslide was set off by rain.

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that Haywood County inspectors found 28 cases of potential slope failure in 2008. Seven of these posed a risk to lives and property.

Haywood County Hazardous-Land Disclosure Statement

Haywood County’s public policy, then and now, remains “buyer beware.” Purchasers receive no fair warning for the need for professional engineering surveys via a pre-sale Hazardous-Land Disclosure Statement.

Don Condren

Mr. Condren is currently doing business in Jackson County. His newest subdivision, Rolling Hills Estates, is located in Webster. According to September 11, 2008 Planning Board Minutes, Rolling Hills Estates will not be subject to geo-technical engineering requirements under the county’s Mountain & Hillside Development Ordinance since the average slope of Mr. Condren's development is 21%. The Planning Board did not inquire about Mr. Condren’s qualifications as a builder or whether he had been sued by property owners' associations.

Horseshoe Cove Landslide Repairs

The expense to repair the extensively damaged private roads in Horseshoe Cove was borne by community property owners. Mary Euler, from the law firm McGuire, Woods, & Bissette, advised her clients in the fall of 2003 to form a property owners' association and to charge members assessments to cover the over $300,000 costs of road and drainage repairs. Ms. Euler explained to the group that if they took legal action against Don Condren (Doncon, Inc.) he would probably declare bankruptcy, and it would cost $50,000 just to begin litigation and would take years.

McGill Associates Engineering Report for the Horseshoe Cove Community

On November 6, 2003 Ms. Euler was furnished with an engineering evaluation for the Horseshoe Cove subdivision. In addition to the $300,000 cost estimates for road repairs re Creekside, Saddle, Range, Stirrup and Bridle, a Bunnell-Lammons engineer found (10) specific areas of slope failure adjoining the 5 roads. These locations are marked by moderate to severe slope instability, such as tension cracks, slides, curved trees and apparent long-term slope failure. The engineers suspect that colluvial soils are contributing to slope instability. Their construction cost estimates to repair slope failures in these 10 areas:

Creekside Drive-$740,000-$1, 480,000
Saddle Drive- $129,375-$258,750
Range Drive-0
Bridle Drive-$937,500-$1,875,000

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