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Wednesday, 04 July 2012 12:14

Slope rules come to Maggie Valley: A lesson to learn from

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fr landslideAfter four major landslides, one death, several destroyed and damaged homes, washed out roads, and a $50,000 clean-up bill, steep slope construction rules are coming to Maggie Valley.

The valley is a top contender for having the most landslides in Western North Carolina in recent years. But like most towns and counties in Western North Carolina, Maggie Valley lacked specific construction standards for building on steep slopes. 

Maggie is posied to become one of the few that do, perhaps a clairvoyant move given their landslide track record.

Maggie Valley leaders unanimously voiced support to adopt a wholesale version of the same slope rules that are already on the books elsewhere in Haywood County.

While Haywood County passed steep slope rules in 2007, they don’t apply inside town limits. Towns have the choice of adopting the county’s ordinance, adopting their own, or having none at all.

Maggie is the first town in Haywood County to adopt the county’s slope rules as its own. Waynesville has its own version of steep slope rules, which are looser in some ways and stricter in others than the county’s version.

Maggie Valley is a hotspot for second homes and vacation cabins. There’s only one direction to build in Maggie, however, and that’s up. Its topography — as its name suggests — is a long narrow valley with mountains rising up on both sides.

“We have more steep slopes than anywhere else,” said Mayor Ron DeSimone.

And with the second-home building market still in the doldrums, potential buyers should be assured slope construction isn’t shoddy.

“You want to obviously curtail (slope) failures because that’s bad for business,” DeSimone said.

 

Three ways to get slope rules passed 

Mention steep slope regulations, and it’s usually a recipe for months if not years of heated and controversial discourse. The building and real estate community can quickly get their hackles up at the thought of mountain construction being handcuffed.

But in Maggie, slope rules got a unanimous stamp of approval from the planning board and town board no sooner than the idea was broached, although the town still has to hold formal public hearing before the slope rules are official.

There are a few reasons why the steep slope rules were met with a seemingly indifferent shrug. Obviously, Maggie didn’t have to write its own, so that saved untold months of wrangling over how strict or lose the language should be.

But there were clearly other factors that led Maggie’s town board to unceremoniously sign on to the county’s slope ordinance with no backlash to speak of.

1. Make the rules innocuous

For starters, Haywood County’s — and now Maggie Valley’s — steep slope rules just aren’t that big a deal.

“It’s not oppressive,” DeSimone said.

The standards only kick in when slopes are exceedingly steep or tall. Very little mountainside construction ever exceeds the too-steep or too-tall threshold to trigger the slope ordinance.

In the rare case the ordinance is triggered, it doesn’t make the particular slope off-limits for building. It simply requires the builder or grader to submit a slope plan penned by an engineer or similar professional — intended to make sure the construction is done in a safe way and won’t collapse.

“It sets a baseline and says ‘If you build over the baseline, get an engineer,’” DeSimone said.

The slope ordinance, by its very existence, encourages builders to build gentler or smaller slopes so they don’t trigger mandatory engineer oversight.

“We find folks are building better slopes as a result,” said Marc Pruett, the county’s sediment and erosion control officer who oversees the slope ordinance also

Because the slope rules apply everywhere else in Haywood County, contractors realize they’re nothing to be afraid of.

“There is almost no one who works in Maggie Valley who hasn’t already worked under this ordinance,” DeSimone said.

2. Find a champion in the building community

The steep slope rules had the ideal champion in DeSimone, who is not only the mayor but also a builder himself. He could allay fears in the building community from first-hand experience of working within the rules himself.

DeSimone doesn’t merely have a working knowledge of the slope rules — he actually helped write them. He was the president of the Haywood County Home Builders Association when the county set to work making a set of slope construction rules. The association was naturally interested, but at first, it wasn’t clear what role they would take: would they fight it and try to stop it, or angle for a seat at the table.

“Our main concern was it would curtail development or make it cost prohibitive,” DeSimone said. “I kind of defused that and said ‘Let’s get involved with it.’”

They opted for a seat at the table, and the result was a weaker ordinance than the one originally drafted and endorsed by the planning board. But, it was an ordinance nonetheless, which is more than many places have.

3. Point out bad examples

There’s a third reason the slope rules got a surprisingly warm welcome in Maggie. It’s seen how unpleasant and destructive landslides can be — and costly. The town was stuck with a $50,000 clean-up bill following a landslide below Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in 2009. The total cost of clean up and slope repairs were $1.4 million, with the rest coming from state and federal funds.

The landslide tore a half-mile swath down the mountainside, taking out a road in two places and brushing dangerously close to homes on either side of its path. A couple homes sustained damage, others had their drinking wells and yards torn up.

The landslide originated from a series of stair step retaining walls built to hold back a near vertical wall of earth. When the mountaintop was leveled off to build the amusement park in the 1960s, soil was pushed over the side then shored up with retaining walls. But, it had posed problems for decades, requiring regular repairs and bolstering with new walls to keep the mountainside in place.

It’s possible the Ghost Town landslide never would have occurred if the slope ordinance had been in place.

The cause of the slide is still in dispute — possibly faulty retaining walls or maybe leaking water lines behind the walls. But either way, the ordinance could have avoided it. The ordinance bans waterlines from being buried in fill slopes. Meanwhile, it would have limited how tall and steep the slope behind the retaining walls could be, thus not overtaxing their ability to hold back the soil behind them.

DeSimone sees the ordinance as a responsible step to protect taxpayers.

“In light of the liability the town faced in the last slope failure, I thought it was prudent for Maggie Valley to adopt some sort of steep slope ordinance,” DeSimone said.

 

Sediment and erosion on tap too

Maggie Valley will also adopt  Haywood County’s version of sediment and erosion control laws. Right now, sediment and erosion control laws are monitored by the state. But there are only three sediment and erosion control agents to cover a 23-county area. They are stretched so thin that site inspections rarely occur unless there are complaints.

The county’s sediment and erosion control department works with developers over the course of the project to make sure violations don’t occur in the first place.

“We see ourselves as partners in the development process,” Pruett said.

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