So you've fallen in love with our beautiful mountains, and you're ready to buy your Western North Carolina dream home. How do you choose?
The answer is: carefully. Living on a mountain entails serious personal and financial risks. The 19 counties that make up WNC are in a landslide-hazard zone, and the North Carolina Geological Survey is in the midst of assembling a hazard map that will take four years to complete.
In September 2004, 15 WNC counties were declared federal disaster areas after hurricanes Frances and Ivan passed over these mountains. The rain from these storms set off 130 landslides, caused five deaths and destroyed 27 homes.
Since then, there's been an explosion of resort development in WNC. No one knows for sure what impact this will have on mountainside stability, but geologists have noted that increased residential and resort construction in the mountains inevitably exposes more people to the dangers of landslides and flooding.
Landslides sometimes spontaneously occur on natural slopes. But if mountain construction isn't done safely and carefully, the excavations, embankments and disturbed drainage patterns can weaken slopes, increasing the likelihood of landslides.
According to state geologists, building resorts and subdivisions on mountain slopes requires cutting roads into steep terrain, placing homes on vertical slopes, and burying piping for water, sewage and septic systems in destabilized and vulnerable ground. Meanwhile, local environmental officers are expressing similar concerns at the county level.
On March 27, Marc Pruett told the Haywood County commissioners: "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." Pruett, who directs the county's erosion-control program, has a slide show he uses to illustrate the ongoing local disasters (see "Disappearing Haywood," The Enterprise-Mountaineer, Oct. 31, 2005).
Pruett's shocking photos show roads that have simply disintegrated as the land underneath them has shifted. There are images of chocolate-brown waterways clogged with runoff from construction. Others show slopes so steeply cut that they're continually eroding.
Houses fare no better. Some have been knocked off their precarious perches by landslides; foundations are laced with cracks so big you can see daylight. Still other homes are being ripped to bits as the "solid ground" they're built on starts to move. And in just about every case, says Pruett, a combination of substandard construction and inappropriate sites is to blame.
But don't look to North Carolina for protection. Other than weak erosion-control statutes, there is no state supervision of mountain development. Each municipality controls its own building permits, safety ordinances, regulations and guidelines for mountain development. And attempts to adopt strict, safe slope regulations often face strong opposition from homebuilders' associations and developers who complain about increased construction costs. Builders also worry that if a given county's slope ordinance is too restrictive, resort developers will take their projects elsewhere.
The result is a patchwork of widely varying local laws. Some counties are adopting safe building codes to protect the public; others let developers make the rules.
If you're thinking of buying property on a mountain slope, ask the developer or current owner for a copy of the hazard land study. It should be done by a licensed geologist and a licensed civil engineer. Geologists use colors to designate the likelihood of landslides and flooding in particular areas: Red indicates a high probability, orange a moderate probability, and green means a low probability.
People often assume that their home-insurance policy covers damage from flooding and landslides, but this is not the case. The National Flood Insurance Program does offer special policies to protect against flooding. They're relatively inexpensive, but they cover only structural damage up to $250,000. Landslide insurance, meanwhile, is both costly and hard to get.
So before you buy that eagle's aerie with the million-dollar view, think long and hard about it. Most local developers are not having professional landslide-hazard studies done. And real-estate companies are here to sell homes -- not necessarily to protect your interests.
For more information about the deaths and devastation caused by landslides, see the fact sheet compiled by the North Carolina Geological Survey, available online at www.geology.enr.state.nc.us/news.htm.
[Longtime Asheville resident Lynne Vogel formerly owned a bed-and-breakfast here.]