Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rich Cove Road Landslide: Is the Town of Maggie Valley Guilty of Reckless Endangerment?

Photos of the February 5, 2010 Rich Cove Road landslide—Asheville Citizen-Times
Flyover video provided by WSPA News

The Case for Reckless Endangerment

The February 5, 2010 Ghost Town in the Sky landslide is the latest example of harm caused by government negligence. Haywood County commissioners, the Town of Maggie Valley aldermen and their respective planning boards were dutifully notified twelve years ago that land under their jurisdiction was highly unstable.

Western North Carolina Hazardous-Land Warnings

The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued Western North Carolina landslide advisories in 1998. The FEMA hazardous-land bulletins warned that homes and roads throughout 23-mountain counties were likely to experience disastrous landslide events.

Significant Western North Carolina Landslides

Since October 2009, I-40 has been hit with three rock slides. A section of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville was closed because of imminent slope failure.

In September 2004 rain set off landslides in fifteen counties. The result: loss of life and homes. Fifteen counties were declared federal disaster areas.

Recurring Landslides Damage Homes and Roads in Haywood County

One of the most outspoken critics of hazardous-land development is Marc Pruett, director of Haywood County Erosion Control. In October 2005 Mr. Pruett provided Haywood County commissioners with graphic evidence of the damage caused by steep slope unstable soil development. The Haywood County landslide presentation was covered by The Enterprise-Mountaineer. The following is a reprint of the newspaper's now-archived article.

"Disappearing Haywood" by Jeff Schmerker
The Enterprise-Mountaineer— October 31, 2005.
County to craft ordinance aimed at halting erosion

If you ever get the chance to see Marc Pruett’s erosion control disaster slide show by all means, watch it.

Pruett’s diorama is a hundred or so photos that depict in shocking detail the worst of Haywood County residential development. There are photos of roads splintered into tiny bits as the slopes underneath them give way. There are images of streams running dark brown, choked with silt from unmitigated erosion. There are pictures of cut slopes so steep they have been reduced to constantly avalanching gullies.

And then there are the homes. Pruett has pictures of houses being slapped on one side by landslides and falling off deliriously steep slopes on the other, homes whose yards are riddled with gaping crevasses as the land pulls away beneath them, homes whose foundations have cracked, some of the cracks so big daylight shines through them, and pictures of homes literally being torn apart as the unstable ground they sit on gives way. Pruett, the county’s erosion control program director, who showed his slides Tuesday night to a gathering of county officials and environmental workers, said in nearly every case the culprit was the same: shoddy building practices in unsafe terrain.

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners is looking into a new set of standards to combat the effects, both personal and environmental, of slope development.

Commissioners have said they would like to see recommendations on a plan in January. Pruett told that group that in many cases the erosion nightmares are the result of poor education, or bad decision-making, in areas saddled by steep slopes and bad soils. The goal in writing such a plan, he said, would not be to hinder development, just to ease erosion.

“My personal opinion is that we do not need to look at mandating densities of development or prohibiting development,” Pruett said after the meeting. “We need to allow development wherever people want to build, but get them to build a little bit better.

Traditionally, said Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe, some builders have resisted similar ordinances.

So the challenge, she added, is finding a solution that protects mountainsides and residents, while allowing home and road building.

“A lot of the time, folks from the flat country don’t realize the challenge in purchasing mountain land,” Enloe said. But the workshop’s big turnout shows that the community is taking the issue seriously. “It is a heavy responsibility to meet that challenge of protecting our hillsides and mountainsides while not prohibiting people from being about to build a house and build a road into that house,” she said. “The roads to houses are sometimes as much of a problem as anything else.”

Pruett said any recommendations would likely focus on development practices in areas where the soils are known to be challenging for development. But setting standards for development in concert with soil mapping is complicated, he warned. Crafting a workable solution will require input from a variety of sources, and Pruett said he hopes the public weighs in.

“I feel like unsuspecting buyers need to be protected to some extent,” Pruett said. “We should probably look at the long term-effects (of erosion) and find reasonable regulations for the greater good. There is a considerable amount of construction work and land disturbing being undertaken in areas where we do not know enough about the soil.” Pat Tilley, who is leading the planning department’s subcommittee which is investigating ordinances, said she commends the county commission for taking the issue on. Hopefully, she said, the municipalities will adopt rules identical to the county’s so guidelines are uniform.

“What we need is protection for property owners,” she said. “After the house is built, the developer and the builder are gone.”
Mr. Pruett continued to press for regulatory reform. In a follow-up October March 27, 2006 meeting with Haywood County commissioners, Mr. Pruett said: "Currently anyone with a bulldozer and backhoe can carve out home sites and roads into the mountainside. This lack of engineering is causing homes and roads to slide down the mountain throughout the county."

Photograph of Haywood County property damage caused by 2003 spring rains—Story covered by The Enterprise-Mountaineer.

Before and after photographs- Donin Landslide
Haywood County, NC—2009 —Asheville Citizen-Times

Horseshoe Cove Subdivision Landslides- Haywood County, NC
2003 —Pam Williams, Property Owner

Jones's Landslide Fatality Haywood County 2003—NCGS

Moody Landslide
Haywood County, NC 2009
Asheville Citizen-Times

Cascades Subdivision Landslide Haywood County 2006—NCGS

Slope Movement Haywood County, NC —NCGS

Relevant Information

Town of Maggie Valley Fails to Protect Lives and Property

In spite of numerous federal hazardous-land warnings and overwhelming evidence of development-precipitated property damage throughout Haywood County, the Town of Maggie Valley has no landslide prevention ordinance.

1992 Ghost Town in the Sky Landslide

Ghost Town's failed retaining wall was on the site of a previous landslide. State geologists note that the February 2010 slope debris flow followed the path of the park’s 1992 landslide.

Ghost Town in the Sky Bankruptcy

Steve Shiver, President and CEO of Ghost Town, has apologized for the retaining wall failure and resultant damage. The property owners harmed by the Ghost Town in the Sky debris flow will not receive compensation from the group of investors who purchased the business in 2006 and who are responsible for maintenance in the amusement park. Ghost Town in the Sky, LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2009.

Cause of Ghost Town in the Sky Landslide: Defective Retaining Wall

The $600,000 retaining wall at issue was completed in 2008. Pat Burgin, a contract engineer for Ghost Town, was
asked to inspect the project shortly after completion for evident signs of failure. “I looked at it and determined it was not done properly and was an unsafe situation.”

In Mr. Burgin’s assessment, the Ghost Town debris flow “would have been much worse and likely fatal” if the company had not acted to remove massive amounts of dirt from the impaired site. Mr. Burgin believes that the “Present (park) owners kind of inherited a problem from the previous group of investors.”


Mr. Shiver had an obligation to notify Town of Maggie and Haywood County officials of his engineer's hazardous-slope findings, but he chose to remain silent. He did
petition the town for a $200,000 loan in the spring of 2009.

The Shiver-led investors are not the only culpable parties in this matter. The Town of Maggie Valley is equally to blame for failing to regulate and control hazardous-land building sites.


Anonymous said...

Maggie Valley to compel Ghost Town to stabilize lingering slide threat
By Bibeka Shrestha • Staff Writer

James said...

If you were to research who worked on the retaining wall you will probably find the following:

Edwards family who held at least 3-4 seats = Board of Alderman ... Zoning Board of Adjustments ... Planning Board

Maggie Valley is known to be a cowboy city of politics. Why there was no engineering requirements for retaining wall work performed falls directly on town staff. Their job duties was set aside due to cutting costs for Ghost Town and contractor moving dirt.

I believe that not only the town is liable but also town employees. When they allow peer pressure and safety requirements to ignore their job duties, they should be personally liable to those who lost their homes. This is another case of deliberate indifference and or unequal enforcement.