Haywood County commissioners are reluctant to hand over taxpayer money to stabilize the latest landslide in Maggie Valley — even if the federal government chips in for much of the cost.
At a commissioners meeting on Monday, the Town of Maggie Valley asked the county to partner in a grant application from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program. If approved, the grant would pay to remove debris, reroute the natural stream channel, and most importantly, shore up the still unstable portion of the mountainside. About 12,000 to 16,000 tons of material is looming over the Rich Cove community, posing the potential for more slides.
The federal grant would cover 75 percent of the cost, while the remaining 25 percent would have to be found locally.
But lingering questions over whether the slide at Rich Cove was a natural disaster or caused by a failed retaining wall at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park has caused county commissioners to hesitate about participating in the program.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the issue at hand is whether Ghost Town is at fault. If so, the company, not county taxpayers, should pay for the slide’s impact. Ghost Town has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year, however.
Steve Steve Shiver, CEO of Ghost Town, said he just didn’t have enough data — namely the cost of cleanup and stabilization — to make any decisions.
“At this point, we’ll just wait and see what the estimates are,” said Shiver, adding that Ghost Town has been able to repair a road that was washed out by the slide over the weekend. Road access to the top of the mountain is now restored, Shiver said.
At one point on Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis asked Maggie Valley’s town manager point blank if the town would pursue litigation against Ghost Town in the future to recoup its costs.
“Is the Town of Maggie Valley willing to enter litigation to get their 25 percent back?” asked Curtis.
Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth replied the town would talk to Ghost Town about whether its owners would chip in to cover the 25 percent local match.
“It won’t get any cheaper for them, I’ll just say that,” said Barth. “If they have to fix that on their own, it’ll be 100 percent cost, and not 25 percent.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Mark Swanger worried about setting a precedent for providing county money to clean up slides, even when they occur on private property or are caused by private companies.
“How is this one different from the ones we had in the past?” asked Swanger.
Swanger said if Maggie is going to ask for county assistance, it should also follow the county’s lead in implementing regulations for development on steep slopes.
Curtis added that local governments should begin pushing to bring landslide insurance coverage to the state, even if it is expensive.
The commissioners ultimately decided not to commit to the program before receiving a concrete dollar figure on the 25 percent match.
“Really, the bottom line is going to be the cost,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
Town and county leaders will hold a joint meeting once the federal agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, comes up with a proper estimate for the stabilization and clean up.
A project manager and engineer surveyed the slide this week and hope to provide a damage survey report by early next week.
Carol Litchfield, a local representative from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said while legal complexities may arise with this particular landslide, it meets the objectives of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which only responds to natural disasters.
Litchfield said the main issue now is not the 25 percent, but whether the grant will be awarded given competition for the funds. Litchfield said it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up a site, though she does not have a ballpark figure for what it would cost to stabilize the Rich Cove slide.
The agency will not cover the costs for repairing structures or homes damaged by the mudslide, she added.
The last time the Emergency Watershed Protection Program was utilized in this area was to mitigate the impact of the 2004 floods in 17 western counties, including in Haywood and Macon counties. At that time, a federal state of emergency was declared, and the state covered the 25 percent match.
With this slide, there hasn’t been enough damage to call for a state of emergency at the state or federal level, though both the county and the Town of Maggie Valley signed a disaster declaration.
For now, the threat of another slide still looms over Rich Cove with a precautionary zone that covers more than double the size of the area currently damaged by the slide.
“We got to do something,” said Greg Shuping, emergency services director for the county. “The fact remains that we have a threat.”