Photo courtesy of Appalachian Landslide Consultants.

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In Western North Carolina, it does not take a tragedy like the one last month in Washington State to drive home the risk of a landslide. Each year, there are at least a handful of reminders close by.

Some years, like last year, the risk is obvious. Heavy rains in January, February, May and July triggered a season of landslides in WNC.

Lynn Sprague, executive director of the Southwestern North Carolina Regional Conservation and Development Council, said what was seen in 2013 was a vivid reminder of the need to continue identifying WNC’s landslide-prone areas.

The council, working with the Appalachian Regional Commission, has developed a grants program to pick up where the state of North Carolina left off when a Department of Environment and Natural Resources landslide mapping program lost its funding.

The state’s landslide mapping program, which included five geologists working from DENR’s regional office in Asheville, began in partial response to the widespread landslides triggered by Hurricanes Ivan and Frances in 2004. It later ended due to budget cuts to DENR in 2011 and a major restructuring of the agency.

Sprague said the program provided important information on the landslide risks in WNC when it was shut down. It was frustrating, he said, because so much information — including new aerial maps — is available.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen people lose property, lose lives. We’ve seen major highways shut down,” Sprague said. “The data is there. Are we just going to ignore this information? It kind of boggles the mind.”

Jennifer Bauer

The council, working with groups in Haywood and Jackson counties, is helping support new mapping by Jennifer Bauer and Stephen Fuemmeler, two of the five DENR geologists who were working on the landslide mapping program when it was shut down.

The pair formed Appalachian Landslide Consultants PLLC, an Asheville-based company focusing on property assessment and landslide hazard mapping. They are nearing completion of the first phase of mapping work in the Jonathan and Ri creek watersheds in Haywood County and Jackson County’s Wayehutta Creek watershed.

Bauer said last year’s rains drove home the importance of the work.

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“Over the course of our mapping we know of over 200 (landslides) in Western North Carolina,” she said. “It was a ridiculously wet year, and we saw record rainfalls.”

A licensed geologist, Bauer was part of the DENR team in 2004 that studied area landslides, including the Peeks Creek landslide in Macon County that killed five people. According to Appalachian Landslide Consultants, that event cost $1.3 million to clean up and another $3.2 million to buy out area residents.

She said it was unfortunate that the DENR program, which completed maps of Macon, Henderson, Watagua and Buncombe counties, was caught up in an effort to stop statewide steep-slopes legislation.

“When the legislature changed hands, the new majority didn’t like the idea of a slope ordinance,” she said. “They saw the (mapping program) as a backdoor to regulation.”

Buncombe County did use information from the mapping program to develop its ordinance, but other counties have not. Bauer said Haywood County has no plans to use the new maps to draft ordinances or regulation.

Bauer said one of the lessons from the reaction to DENR’s mapping program was to make sure there’s plenty of outreach and education up front. In starting up the new mapping projects, she’s met with local officials, real estate and builder groups, emergency planners and conservation groups to explain what the project is looking for and what it will map.

Image detail from an Appalachian Landslide Consultants presentation on Western North Carolina landslides.

She stressed the importance of information and helping builders know when extra engineering is needed.

“One of the most important things to know is has something happened in the past,” she said. “If we know something has happened before in a similar location, we can prevent it from happening in the future or avoid them when they do happen.”

She said that becomes really important in areas in WNC that are growing. See a presentation from Appalachian Landslide Consultants about landslides in WNC here [PDF].

“Development is moving higher and higher,” she said. The higher up it goes, she said, the more engineering is required.

Knowing soil types, how compact they are, and water flow is critical in making sure roads and other infrastructure are stable. Maintenance is as well. Bauer said ditches and culverts meant to divert water can fail and cause water to flow over the roadway instead. That can lead to a wash out.

Mike Butrum, government affairs director with the Asheville Board of Realtors, said the emphasis on education and the way Bauer and Fuemmeler have approached their work has helped make builders and real estate professionals more aware of the hazards.

Butrum said that, for builders and the real estate community, the fight over steep slope regulations was about preventing what was seen as overly restrictive rules. Afterward, he said, the industry acknowledged the need for more education on landslides as one part of accountable development.

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The board enlisted Bauer to help teach classes for realtors and homebuilders on what to look for in identifying potential landslide areas and on best practices in dealing with steep slopes.

Butrum said while that’s increased awareness among many builders, he’d like to find a way to encourage the same education for builders from outside the area who don’t understand the demands of building on steeper slopes.

“The single biggest problem we have today is out-of-town builders coming in who have never built here,” he said. “They need this kind of education.”

Sprague agreed that builders who are unfamiliar with the area and how to build on the local slopes is a big part of the problem. Focusing on the obvious need for education has help ease some of the wariness about developing new maps.

He said it’s not unlike the evolution of thinking when soil surveys were first done. Bauer and Fuemmeler, he said, have found a way to get the mapping done with much greater community buy-in. There’s not a feeling that what they’re doing is leading up to more regulation, he said.

“I think we’ve turned the corner,” he said. “This may just be the recipe for getting this done.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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