Thursday, February 12, 2009

Building on Landslides in Asheville: Lessons to be Learned from Colorado Springs' Hazardous Land Development

One of a series of three Buncombe County landslide maps.

City of Asheville/Buncombe County Mountain Real Estate

Planning on buying or building a home in the Asheville area? You should take a close look at this risk-assessment map. All those vivid red colors spot the county’s most expensive and risky real estate settings. For top dollar you can purchase a potentially landslide-hazardous home site in The Cliffs at High Carolina, Ciel, Brittain Knob, Phoenix Cove, Town Mountain Cove, Reynolds Mountain, The Settings, Versant ( in bankruptcy), Crest Mountain, and Southcliff. No one will tell you, not the seller or your Realtor, that homes built on this land have a questionable future.

The City of Asheville/Buncombe County’s hazardous land development began to blossom in early 2000 in spite of conclusive reports stating that these sites were geologically unstable and unsuitable for residential construction. In September 2004 the county received a federal disaster declaration after rain triggered 12 landslides, one of which, destroyed a Starnes Cove home. An embankment failure crushed the French Broad Volunteer Fire Department building in the summer of 2005. Other landslide property losses have been reported on Town Mountain Road and in Beaverdam Valley.

There will be Landslides

Jim Coman, Zoning Administrator for Buncombe County was asked to address local and regional landslide probabilities after the January 7, 2009 Maggie Valley tragedy. He said “ I’m afraid that we’re going to see more and more (houses destroyed by landslides) in the future as people build on steeper and steeper slopes.” Mr. Coman added that he had received questions from residents who are living below the extensive Reynolds Mountain residential building site. These families were asking the county whether construction in the steep-slope mountain development would set off landslides. His answer, “As the saying goes, we’re all downstream,”

Absence of Regulation

In January 2007 the Buncombe County Environmental Advisory Board issued an admonishment to the Board of Commissioners regarding the absence of Ridge Top/Steep Slope Development regulation. The Board found that
A clearly defined, comprehensive, countywide plan is needed to adequately manage RT/SS Development in Buncombe County. The costs associated with a comprehensive strategy to protect these irreplaceable assets and to protect the health and safety of our citizens is minimal compared to the costs of doing nothing further. The present condition of allowing increasing waves of unregulated (or loosely regulated) haphazard growth to occur along our mountain ridges and steep slopes has become an untenable position.
Saying no to hazardous land subdivision permits is not a consideration in Buncombe County: the municipality's mountain slopes remain a free-from-regulation developers' sanctuary.

Buncombe County Building Sites have not been Surveyed for Landslides

Asheville newcomers should take notice of the cautionary statement issued by Governor Easley in October 2006 regarding the dangers of building on or buying property in counties that have not been mapped for geologic hazards.
These maps will show which areas are prone to landslides and that will help developers, county officials, and residents decide where to safely build homes, roads, and other structures.
Buncombe County landslide probability maps were to be completed and released in the summer of 2007 but for unpublicized reasons these critical safety studies have been delayed.

If you have any doubt about the likelihood of landslides causing extreme property damage in Buncombe County you should read Bob Campbell’s “Risky Business”The politics of landslides-and building on landslides-in Colorado Springs… the culprits are the same. The following is a summary of Mr. Campbell’s 2000 investigative report.

City of Colorado Springs/El Paso County Mountain Real Estate

The City of Colorado Springs/ El Paso County’s hazardous residential development began to flourish in the early 90s even though government planners had been warned in 1974 that “building and road construction should be prohibited in landslide hazard areas.”

The predictions became a reality in the spring of 1995 when the Regency Ridge landslide resulted in property condemnation and serious damage to six homes on the 4200 block of Regency Drive. Residences above and below this fractured site remain at risk.

In the close by Broadmoor area homes are resting on a 200-acre landslide that extends east from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to across Broadmoor South Golf Course in the Marland Court neighborhood. This uncontrollable land mass has ruined two Marland Court homes and threatens many more. Evidence of earth movement is visible everywhere: broken roadways, bulging tennis courts, and no longer horizontal trees and fences.

Landslides began to target homes across Colorado Springs in 1999. These events were triggered by a combination of factors: slope alteration, sprinkler systems, and wet winters. El Paso County was declared a federal disaster area in 1999.

Colorado geologists report that "as many as 5,000 homes, many in the $500,000-and up price range, (2000 valuations) have been built in Colorado Springs on potentially unstable, landslide-susceptible hillsides."

These neighborhoods include Penhurst Place, Regency Drive, Marland Court, Holland Park, Honey Locust, Friendship Lane, Spring Creek Court, Haverhill Place and Cedar Heights.

Donna Fair, director of the city Office of Emergency Management, said 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.

Under pressure after the Regency Ridge landslide, the city passed restrictive subdivision regulations in 1996. New rules under the Colorado Springs Geologic Hazards Ordinance required comprehensive feasibility/safety studies for all at-risk building sites.

Western North Carolina Hazardous Land Development

There is no doubt that Western North Carolina mountain real estate, which encompasses 23 counties, is landslide-precarious. The Ivan/Frances 2004 precipitated landslide disasters were not surprise events. Federal and state emergency management professionals, geologists, and soil scientists have issued voluminous reports stating that Western North Carolina’s mountains slopes are high-risk building locations. The insurance industry made the same assessment years ago for residential mountain property. Homeowners policies universally exclude all damage caused by earth movement. Property owners seeking specialty landslide insurance will find that it is not obtainable in already classified high-risk areas.

Haywood County Commissioners Request Landslide Hazard Studies

Haywood County forms the western border of Buncombe County. This mountainous region has experienced numerous residence-destroying landslide events. The latest one occurred on January 7, 2009 in the Wild Acres subdivision. David Wijewickrama, the attorney representing the Maggie Valley victims, has asked whether the county did anything to prevent the slope failure. He said documents show that the landslide was preventable.

In early February county commissioners responded to media questions concerning landslide prevention safety issues. Without argument the Board quickly passed a resolution asking for hazard mapping and a state-funded landslide insurance program.

The commissioners' new-found resolve may help control or prevent future landslide-prone subdivision developments but their actions do nothing to insure the safety of residents who live in perpetually at-risk homes. These property owners, such as the Donins and McAloons, were unfairly led to believe by county officials that their lives and property were secure from avoidable hazards.

Is it safe to buy mountain real estate in Buncombe County or for that matter anywhere in Western North Carolina? Only a state licensed geotechnical engineer can answer that question.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Western North Carolina's Hazardous Real Estate: "Buyers Simply Don't Know to Beware"

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

Disasters are usually short-term news events so most people wouldn't know that landslides have caused death and financial ruin in Western North Carolina. During the September 2004 state of emergency, lives were lost in the Peeks Creek landslide and homes were damaged and destroyed throughout a fifteen county area. These widespread disasters did not prompt regulation: Western North Carolina's hazardous land still remains a "build anywhere" real estate haven. Without constraint “anyone with a bull dozer and backhoe” can carve out a mountain subdivision.

There can be no debate that Western North Carolina's mountain real estate is landslide-hazardous. The Ivan/Frances precipitated landslide catastrophes were not unexpected events. Federal and state emergency management professionals, geologists, and soil scientists have issued voluminous reports stating that Western North Carolina’s mountains slopes are unsuitable, high-risk, building locations. The insurance industry made the same assessment years ago. Homeowners policies universally exclude all property damage caused by earth movement. Property owners seeking specialty landslide insurance will find that it is not obtainable in already classified high-risk areas.

Legislators have been privy to all of this documentation and certainly can't have forgotten their request for $72 million in federal disaster funds. The question is, why have they have failed to provide any measure of control over hazardous-land development?

A few concerned lawmakers attempted to address this matter in 2007 but their efforts were rebuffed.

House Bill 1756 “Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act”

On January 2, 2008 Representative Ray Rapp spoke with Becky Johnson of the Smoky Mountain News about his inability to gather support for safety regulations and real estate landslide disclosure. Rapp explained that he does not support the "caveat emptor" business model that has been fashionable during Western North Carolina’s mountain development heyday. Rapp said that buyers simply don't know to beware. "All they see is a million-dollar view. They are looking at the view not at their feet-and what is underneath their feet could be highly detrimental to their safety." Please see "Rapp tries to round up support for slope development bill."


Haywood County Builders Association

In an October 2007 News Letter Ron DeSimone, President of the Haywood Builders Association, shared his concerns about the impact of HB 1756 on his industry.
Like it or not, what the government does and doesn't do has a direct and fundamental impact on your business. Whether you are a builder or associate member, you should be aware that your industry is under assault. "No growth" groups and radical consumer advocates have advanced proposals which--had they been enacted--would have made it harder, if not impossible, for you to make a living. The governmental affairs staffs of both your national and state association, with your help, have been able to derail many of these bad ideas. All of these decisions were made by local officials or those appointed by them. More of these "bad ideas" are coming! Fortunately both in the U.S. Congress and in our North Carolina General Assembly, our industry has many friends....Landslides and environmental issues are fairly rare and most builders and developers are trying hard to create desirable communities that promote the mountain environment. This is not to diminish the gravity of the problem, or to say that some regulation isn't needed; however, it is important to put things in perspective.
North Carolina Association of Realtors

In April 2007 Rick Zechini, director of governmental affairs for the North Carolina Association of Realtors, sent advisory “we need to stop HB 1756” e-mails to members throughout the state. Mr. Zechini noted that if enacted the “Safe Artificial Construction Act” would be costly to the industry. His objections: landslide real estate disclosure and mandated uniform safe slope construction standards.

Realtors’ Responsibility

Even though the North Carolina legislature has been unwilling to act and the Office of the Attorney General has declined to interfere, their inactions do not absolve Realtors from the legal responsibility of disclosing the material fact that all Western North Carolina mountain real estate is subject to uninsurable landslide property losses.

In case the import of this issue isn’t crystal clear, North Carolina legislators and Realtors should read the news report concerning the January 7, 2009 Maggie Valley landslide.

Cause of the tragedy: unstable soils.