It wasn’t as bad as Peeks Creek, where in 2004 a landslide killed five people, but when mud gushed down the mountain below a Maggie Valley amusement park recently, the disaster potential was greater. Eighteen families lost houses or were relocated for fear of more slides. There was one other big difference: Nature triggered the Macon County slide, but the one at Ghost Town in the Sky began when a retaining wall collapsed.
That mishap, along with other recent ones, has bolstered a push in western North Carolina for laws to protect people and property. Bruce Goforth, a state representative from Buncombe County, says he’ll introduce legislation when the General Assembly convenes this spring to regulate steep-slope development (“A Slippery Slope,” June, 2007). It will join a bill introduced last year by another Democrat, Ray Rapp of Madison County. Goforth faces a challenge in May’s primary from former Buncombe County Commissioner Patsy Keever, who promises to introduce a tougher bill if elected.
Goforth, a contractor and member of the North Carolina Home Builders Association, wants steep-slope rules limited to western counties. “You can’t get a bill passed,” he says, “that would affect 17 counties but apply to all 100.” His would focus on site and road preparation and poorly engineered projects. It would set minimum standards and require counties to enforce them but give them two years to start. “We don’t see houses sliding off the mountain. But we see a lot of grading mistakes, not compacting soil properly, not building retaining walls right.”
That doesn’t go far or fast enough, Rapp and Keever say. Rapp’s Safe Artificial Slope Construction Act would allow the state to step in when steep-slope construction pollutes streams or has other impacts counties can’t control. Keever’s would allow the state to set and enforce standards requiring real-estate agents to tell people they’re buying in risky places and making developers certify their projects aren’t in debris flows such as Peeks Creek.
Each measure likely faces stiff opposition from builders and developers. Rapp’s already has. In Raleigh, Lisa Martin, director of governmental affairs of the 15,000-member home builders association, hasn’t seen the new proposals, but she’s skeptical. “It’s a matter of forcing it on people who haven’t asked for it,” she says, “and some counties aren’t exactly rolling in money right now.”
None of the proposals is likely to pass in the two-month session that begins in May, the three politicians concede. “All this has at least moved the conversation off dead center,” Rapp says. “They might defeat it and call it a victory, but the problem is not going away.”