“This is really heartbreaking,” Jennifer Bauer, a geologist and co-owner of Appalachian Landslide Consultants, told members of the Jackson County Planning Board recently, as she showed them a photo of a worrisome chasm opening up near a house’s foundation due to a developer burying trash beneath the soil. “This is their retirement home, this is where they wanted to live out their retirement and now they’re having to deal with this.”
Over the more than 13,000 acres that were surveyed in the Wayehutta watershed, geologists identified 37 landslides — nine were on natural slopes, 28 were on modified slopes and three were actively moving. The survey also identified 116 ancient landslide deposits and 10 areas of subsidence, or areas where caving and sinking has occurred.
“So, what comes next? Now we have this inventory, what do we do with it?” posed Bauer. “That’s really what these maps are about — so that people will know this information and know what extra precautions to take to protect themselves.”
What Bauer would like to do is continue Jackson’s landslide survey. When she and partner Stephen Fumbler recently laid out their Wayehutta findings for Jackson’s planning board, they provided dollar amounts — ranging from $10,000 to more than $150,000 — needed for varying degrees of continuation.
“Obviously, any expenditure of this size has to be carefully evaluated as to the cost-benefit,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. “Once the planning board has taken an official position, we will invite the chairman to meet with the commissioners to discuss and present the justification for the countywide study.”
Landslide mapping in the state’s western counties began a few years ago, when Bauer and Fuemmeler were state geologists with the North Carolina Geological Survey. The state-funded Landslide Mapping Project was approved in 2005 in the wake of hurricanes Frances and Ivan, back-to-back storms in 2004 that caused about 85 landslides in the mountains. Those slides included the Peeks Creek disaster in Macon County that killed five.
Surveys were completed for Buncombe, Henderson, Macon and Watauga counties. Geologists had just barely dipped their toes into Jackson by 2011.
“At that point the program lost its funding,” Bauer explained.
She told the planning board that she felt that the reason the funding was pulled was because of suspicion surrounding the motives: chiefly, whether the landslide hazard maps could hurt property values and hamper development.
“There were a lot of questions about ‘Will these maps be used for regulation?,’ ‘Will these maps affect my property values?,’ ‘How accurate are these maps?’” Bauer said, adding that she had since spoken to real estate professionals about that logic. “None of them said that the values had been dropped because of the maps. It was more that the market just tanked at that time.”
Advocates in Haywood County were the first to propose the idea of carrying on with the landslide mapping anyway, to be funded by private grants and donations. So, seeing a market for the work to continue, Bauer and Fuemmeler set out on their own. They launched the Asheville-based Appalachian Landslide Consultants and continued mapping privately.
Following a flurry of landslides after heavy rains in 2013, Jackson used a $10,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Council Toolbox Implementation Fund to restart mapping in Jackson County. With the limited funds, the survey area was curtailed to the Wayehutta watershed.
Bauer said that countywide mapping, which would take about a year, could be accomplished for $79,000. A six-month susceptibility survey could also be done for $79,000. The price would include stakeholder meetings, educational brochures, a users’ guide and data distribution.
The educational component is key, explained the geologists, suggesting that the lack of such a component may have contributed to the state program’s end.
“We didn’t have dedicated personnel to help with the public outreach,” Fuemmeler said. “What ended up happening is that other people, opponents, were the main voices that people were hearing.”
Jackson County Planning Director Gerald Green said that the planning board will consider whether or not to recommend a continuation of the survey during its August meeting. The county commission will take up the issue at that point.