Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Macon County Real Estate: "Caveat Emptor" Warns Planning Board Chairman

Macon County, NC Real Estate: Landslide Hazard Maps and Soil Surveys

The state notified Macon County commissioners in October 2006 that major tracts of privately-owned mountain land were impracticable for residential development. These advisory reports (digitized soil assessments and landslide maps) were compiled by the North Carolina Geological Survey at the behest of federal officials.

Macon County, NC Landslide/Soil Hazards Maps

Macon County planning decisions became a Federal Emergency Management Agency concern after the Peeks Creek landslide killed five residents and demolished fifteen homes. Macon was one of fifteen western mountain counties affected by slope failures in September 2004.

NCGS—Peeks Creek Landslide Photos

Western North Carolina Landslide Hazard Maps

In October 2006, Governor Easley issued this press release regarding the importance of the 2005 federally-mandated Western North Carolina Landslide Hazard Mapping Program:
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.
Landslides Impact Macon County Residences and Subdivision Private Roads

Macon County commissioners were faced with a choice in the fall of 2006: continue the status quo and allow residential growth in geologically unstable areas or institute prohibitive regulations. The county currently does not require feasility/safety studies as a condition for steep slope subdivision permits. The decision to favor hazardous-land development over the public’s well being was addressed by Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board on December 2, 2010:
We have sat by as people from faraway places have promised us the moon if only we would stay out of their way and let them develop. Well that promise has come and gone and we’re left with unstable roads and house sites, unlivable homes, and hundreds of foreclosed lots burdening our banks.

What we offer is a “caveat emptor,” “buyer beware” atmosphere. For example, if I buy a used car down at the local lot and the brakes don’t work on that car, then, we come to find out, the salesman knew that all along, but he wanted to make the sale, so he didn’t disclose. Well, a couple of things are going to happen. First of all I will never buy a car from that individual again. Secondly, I’m going to tell all my friends “don’t buy anything from that car lot because you don’t know what you’re getting.” The same thing is happening right now with our county.

People who’ve invested in property here only to see that property affected by slides or erosion and runoff on their property or their neighbors’ property. They in turn are telling their friends.

Over the long term, that’s going to hurt us.

Ultima Carolina Wildflower Subdivision Landslides

SouthWings photos of Wildflower landslides

Craftsman's Village/Boggan Landslide

Photos of Craftsman's Village construction site and view of Boggan
landslide property damage—Macon County News

Macon County, NC Real Estate: Hazardous-Land Disclosure

The North Carolina Real Estate Commission has determined that Realtors and developers must disclose published N. C. Geological Survey risk
(landslide map/soil assessment) findings on property listings and in sales contracts. Macon County Realtors are not in compliance with the Commission's material fact ruling.

It is not known whether county governments are obliged to reveal hazardous-land data.

Of the twenty-one Western North Carolina counties designated landslide-hazardous in 1998, only three have completed maps: Macon (06), Watauga (08) and Buncombe (09). Two county governments, Buncombe and Watauga provide links to their respective landslide maps, Macon does not.

State geologists have determined that 67.3 % of Macon County land is unstable to moderately stable. This fact should be noted on all Macon County real estate sales contracts since property owners will be self-insuring for structural damage caused by earth movement. The insurance industry does not cover  landslide losses.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Landslide Maps Removed from Macon County Government Website

Macon County, North Carolina Landslide Hazard Maps—NCGS

NCGS—Peeks Creek Landslide Photos

Western North Carolina Landslide Hazard Maps

It is now an historic footnote but on September 16, 2004, the Macon County Peeks Creek debris flow killed five people and destroyed fifteen homes. Macon was one of fourteen western mountain counties impacted by rain-activated landslide events during the month. The state requested two federal disaster declarations and received $72 million in emergency funds.

Since these types of events were expected, the Federal Emergency Management Agency obliged the state to accelerate landslide mapping for nineteen at-risk counties. (Note: real estate purchasers have never been privy to the fact that federal officials designated all Western North Carolina mountain counties landslide-hazardous in 1998. The Western North Carolina Landslide Mapping Program was initiated in 2000 for the following counties: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, McDowell, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Surry, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, and Yancey.)

When Macon County landside maps were released by the North Carolina Geological Survey in October 2006, Governor Mike Easley stressed their importance with the following press release:
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.
Since February 2005, date of the Hurricane Recovery Act and allocation of funding, only three county landslide/soil hazard maps have been released by the NCGS.

In May 2010, the North Carolina Real Estate Commission ruled that Macon (06), Watauga (08) and Buncombe (09) landslide hazard maps are material facts that must be disclosed in sales contracts and on property listings. The Haywood County stability index map, although not released, shows high probability of slope failures.

Watauga and Buncombe County government sites provide links to respective landslide hazard maps but on the Macon site, the maps have gone missing.

The Smoky Mountain News reported on December 22, 2010 that landslide maps have been removed from the county Website.

When asked about the absent hazardous-land maps Reggie Holland and John Becker, two members of the Macon County steep slope subcommittee, told the newspaper that they believe the maps cause more harm than good. This, they said, because the maps lack meaningful context for laypersons trying to interpret trained scientists’ work.

Contrary to these gentlemen’s opinions, hazardous-land data is easy to understand. Macon County mountain soils have long been identified and documented as unstable and impracticable compositions for residential development.

Landslide identification maps are color-coded to indicate whether or not the terrain is reasonably safe for home sites and roads. Red signifies high risk building sites.

In September 2010, Macon County Planners were advised by the Southern Environmental Law Center that Realtors are not in compliance with the North Carolina Real Estate Commission’s earlier material fact ruling.

Macon County Real Estate: Hazardous-Land Disclosure

Realtors say they do not know how to respond to the Commission’s ruling. This fiduciary responsibility could be met by attaching copies of the Macon landslide hazard maps to sales contracts and suggesting, if asked, that concerned parties seek professional advice.

Unless required, members of the National Association of Realtors avoid disclosure because of irresolvable insurance issues.

When unstable, colluvial/shrink & swell, soils damage and destroy homes, owners suffer irreparable loss. Insurers do not cover this hazard in North Carolina or any other state. Realtors are aware of this risk ( cited in decades-old county soil surveys) but generally do not recommend stability studies as a condition of contract.

Macon County Planning Board

Macon County planners have known since the 1998 federal landslide risk report that land under their jurisdiction was subject to well-documented geologic hazards.

County officials did not cause the Peeks Creek tragedy but they are responsible, as noted, for setting the stage for future disasters.

Macon County Real Estate Current Landslide Events

Wildflower Subdivision Landslide

SouthWings photos of Wildflower landslides

News Reports

“Road failures cast uncertainty on Wildflower’s future”
Smoky Mountain News—December 16, 2009

“Macon fly-over shows what’s at stake”
Smoky Mountain News—February 17, 2010

“Slide sends powerful message to Macon planners”
Smoky Mountain News—March 24, 2010

Craftsman's Village/Boggan Landslide

Photos of Craftsman's Village construction site and view of Boggan
landslide property damage—Macon County News

News Reports

“CONDEMNED: Could this happen to your home?”
Macon County News —April 1, 2010

“Landslides surge in WNC”
Asheville Citizen-Times—September 3, 2010

“Developer admits no fault for loss of property”
Macon County News—November 17, 2010

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Funding Terminated for The Cliffs at High Carolina Tiger Woods Golf Course

The Cliffs at High Carolina

There is well-founded speculation that The Cliffs Communities, Inc. will relinquish ownership of The Cliffs at High Carolina, its latest master-planned subdivision. This $58 million endeavor has two irresolvable issues: unstable land conditions and no financial support.

The Cliffs at High Carolina Hazardous-Land Reports

On July 3, 2008, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued a Public Notice identifying Cliffs at High Carolina soil compositions. Experts classify these soils impracticable for residential development.

This data coupled with North Carolina Geological Survey Buncombe County landslide hazard maps prove that The Cliffs of High Carolina is a high cost engineering project. Otherwise stated: earth movement is expected.

The Cliffs at High Carolina/Tiger Woods Golf Course on 2007
Buncombe County Hazardous-Land Stability Index Map— NCGS.

Buncombe County Landslide Hazard Maps 2009

Slope Movements and Slope
Movement Deposits Map

Stability Index Map

Map of Known and Potential Debris
Flow Pathways

The Cliffs Communities' Property Owners $60 Million Loan

Rather than summarizing The Cliffs Communities’ financial status, here is a reprint of the article describing the reasons for halting development of The Cliffs at High Carolina Tiger Woods’ golf course.

Golf Community News Report— December 28, 2010—Larry Gravich

"Cliffs Communities halts most spending, including for Tiger Woods golf course"

When Cliffs Communities residents and club members loaned developer Jim Anthony more than $60 million to complete the amenities he had promised, including Tiger Woods’ first American golf course design, they made sure the money would be spent wisely. The loan agreement between Anthony and the lender group, self-named ClubCo, includes a clause that calls for a reduction in spending if real estate sales and cash flow fall short of certain levels.

According to a letter sent to ClubCo members earlier this month, parts of which a Cliffs member has shared with Golf Community Reviews, spending has been deferred for most amenities other than the almost finished clubhouse and Gary Player golf course at Mountain Park. The stoppage includes the golf course, maintenance facility and clubhouse at High Carolina, site of the Tiger Woods golf course, as well as a wellness center, spa and restaurant at The Cliffs at Keowee Springs. Some renovations and expansion of amenities at the other Cliffs communities have also been halted, but according to the Cliffs member who shared the contents of the letter with us, “in the grand scheme of things, nothing major.”

The Mountain Park course and clubhouse are set to open in the fall of 2011. Player moved his U.S. golf design operations to The Cliffs and purchased a large home there. The Tiger Woods course is a couple of years from completion and, let’s face it, does not have the same cachet it had before a certain fateful Thanksgiving night 13 months ago. (Anthony and Woods announced the High Carolina plans the summer before the star’s car crash and revelations of serial adultery.) High Carolina was “an unnecessary addition to the Cliffs formula,” according to our reader, and “…the debt raised may accelerate a split off of High Carolina, something I view as inevitable, and hopefully before it destroys value [in] the rest of the Cliffs.”

“Six courses to play is perfectly adequate,” he added, echoing what we have heard from other Cliffs members who play their home course most of the time, other nearby Cliffs courses occasionally, and the ones an hour away rarely. The three courses on Lake Keowee (Vineyard, Falls and Springs) are less than 20 minutes from each other, and those closer to Greenville, SC (Glassy, Valley, and Mountain Park when completed) are less than 30 minutes from each other. The “outlier” is The Cliffs at Walnut Cove, a challenging Jack Nicklaus course, which appears to be self-sustaining given the lure of nearby Asheville, NC.

During my first visit to The Cliffs in 2006, I marveled at the high-end amenities that included equestrian centers, wellness centers, expansive clubhouses, nature trails (with on-staff naturalists) and plans for even more. I wondered out loud to a friend how such spending could be sustained, even from the sales of home sites in the high-six figures. Of course, an ascendant housing market coupled with a huge and well-to-do baby boomer cohort caused many buyers not to think twice about subsidizing amenities they might never use. (Quick, think of all the golfing equestrians you know!) Then credit default swaps exerted their gravitational pull on the housing market and all those baby boomers’ plans. The Cliffs is not alone among high-end golf communities with cash flow issues.

Developers who pushed an all-amenities-to-all-people business model have had a sobering few years. Although he certainly could be accused of overreaching, The Cliffs’ Jim Anthony is no Bobby Ginn; Cliffs properties may have lost some significant value in the last three years, but their owners still speak of Anthony in reverential terms (the opposite of how Ginn owners feel about their bankrupt developer). They want Anthony’s vision to triumph as much as they want their investments to hold. In an ironic way, the economy may have done Anthony and The Cliffs a favor. The members who loaned Anthony the $60 million will act as a governor on his loftier -– and expensive –- dreams.

This new financial partnership among owners and developer, as well as spending to match cash flow, could very well become a model for other upscale golf communities that got way ahead of themselves.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Landslide Concerns: The Cliffs at High Carolina/Tiger Woods Golf Course

The Cliffs at High Carolina/Tiger Woods Golf Course on 2007
Buncombe County Hazardous-Land Stability Index Map— NCGS.

Buncombe County Landslide Hazard Maps 2009

Slope Movements and Slope
Movement Deposits Map

Stability Index Map

Map of Known and Potential Debris
Flow Pathways

The Cliffs at High Carolina

No one has asked Jim Anthony, developer of The Cliffs at High Carolina or Tiger Woods his partner, whether they have considered the consequences of building a golf course on unstable ground.

Since Buncombe County hazardous-land maps have been published, Mr. Anthony cannot avoid the fact that the Cliffs at High Carolina golf course has geologic conditions that predispose the site to landslides. So the question is, does Mr. Anthony know what impact the golf course and its irrigation system might have on the mountain’s defined unstable slopes?

Mr. Anthony may not know the answer but geologists do.

Golf course construction alters the landscape. These expansively remodeled sites are cleared of native vegetation and are replaced with turf grass which requires irrigation. When golf courses are built in stable environments their location and maintenance requirements are not an issue, but when they are placed in geologically hazardous locations they are a matter of concern as demonstrated in the following histories.

Landslides Linked to Golf Course Construction and Irrigation

View of Ocean Trails Golf Course Landslide—
Ninyo & Moore

Ocean Trails Golf Course Landslide—Rancho Palos Verdes, CA— 1999 (Trump National Golf Club)

Ninyo & Moore, a geotechnical and environment sciences firm, was hired to provide a forensic evaluation for the Ocean Trails Golf Course Landslide. A summary of its findings:
On June 2, 1999, an approximately 16-acre ancient landslide on the coastal bluff was reactivated, sliding approximately 50 feet toward the ocean. The ancient landslide destroyed much of the 18th fairway and green along with adjacent improvements, including an active County sewer line. The geologic setting included gently to moderately tilted beds of the Monterey Formation. The Monterey Formation at this locality included interbedded sequences of fine silty sandstone, siltstones, shales, dolomitic shales, siliceous zones, and bentonitic ash beds. The basal rupture surface was formed along a relatively continuous bentonite layer at a depth of approximately 90 feet. The geologic evaluation included detailed geologic mapping, 26 large-diameter borings, two rotary wash continuous core borings, 12 inclinometers, and the excavation and evaluation of buried sewer lines and artificial lakes. The analysis included preparation of multiple geologic cross sections, slope stability analysis, and evaluation of potential reactivation causes including seismic activity, precipitation, wave erosion, irrigation, construction activities, lake leakage, and sewer line leakage.
Donald Trump purchased the bankrupt Ocean Trails Golf Course in 2002 and he has spent $55 million to restore and stabilize the property.

In addition to the presently contained landslide located underneath the Trump National Golf Club Course, three others are located on the peninsula according to the Rancho Palos Verdes Chamber of Commerce. The largest, the Portuguese Bend landslide, was reactivated in 1956 and moves about a foot a year, depending on rainfall. This underground landslide tract covers 260 acres and has an average depth of 135 feet. Geologists attribute the onset of movement to irrigation, installation of pools and septic tanks that increased ground water levels.

South Golf Course Landslide—Colorado Springs, C0— 1993

Engineers investigating the site determined that irrigation was the cause of the reactivation of the ancient landslide underneath the South Golf Course. Their findings:
The construction of the golf course modified the site hydrology by adding irrigation water inflows and by changing the vegetation from native grass and scrub oak to turf grass over 55 percent of the total area. An analysis of the irrigation and precipitation rates and the turf grass water consumption rates showed a relatively high infiltration rate in the turf grass areas compared to the unirrigated native areas.

Proposals for Slowing the Landslide:

(1) ground water dewatering systems, (2) surface water control systems, (3) collection of flow from horizontal drains, and (4) control of irrigation.
1) Tetra Tech, Inc., USA
2) Colorado State University, USA

Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club Landslide—Manistee, Michigan— 1998

Wikipedia photos of Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course post 1998 landslides

The Arcadia Bluffs golf course was severely damaged by landslides during a September 1998 storm event.

Reference: “Arcadia Bluffs sage continues”— Andrew Overbeck, Golf Course News—November 2001.