In 2005, two investment partners from Atlanta broke ground on a massive project on the slopes of Cowee Mountain in north Macon County with hopes of creating a new paradigm for mountainside development in Western North Carolina.
However, four years later, the road system is plagued by landslides, many of the lots are in foreclosure and only two homes have actually been built on the 2,500-acre development.
When a mid-November rain storm dumped three inches in Macon County, Thompson Road, a key road through the development, gave way, triggering a landslide, burying a home site below under a half-acre of debris. More significantly, the slide raises questions about the stability of the remaining 30 miles of roads in the development. After the slide, Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe contacted the North Carolina Geological Survey to ascertain if the road collapse posed a threat to property owners down slope from the Wildflower development.
“After we noticed there was a slide there, we notified property owners in the valley just so they could know what was going on above them,” Cabe said. “We wanted them to hear it from us instead of reading it in the newspaper.”
The study conducted by North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Senior Geologist Rick Wooten concluded that the area affected by the slide was still unstable.
“The lowermost portion of the deposit spilled over a steep road cut for a driveway above Thompson Road. Large trees, many with root balls still attached, were pushed over, snapped off, and partially buried by debris flow material in the toe area,” the report read. “Unstable embankment material remains below the eastward and westward extensions of the main scarp. This unstable material will probably continue to move.”
Geologist vs. developer
The report and a subsequent mapping effort undertaken by state geologists and Macon County’s GIS mapping team also showed that the road system in Wildflower was compromised to some degree in more than 20 separate locations.
Wooten’s team recommended that landowners below Wildflower be notified of the risk of future slides and suggested that other roads in Wildflower would likely continue to move.
“The other failure areas along the Wildflower development road network have the potential for continued movement, especially associated with heavy rainfall events,” the report said.
After four years in business, the 250-lot development boasts only two finished homes and with a number of its home sites already in foreclosure, the last thing it needs is a major issue with its road system.
Brian Garner, general manager of Wildflower, said the failure of Thompson Road was an isolated incident that resulted from the emergence of a wet spring.
Garner said Wildflower would hire a geo-technical engineer to evaluate the situation as well as take additional measures to prevent erosion in the future. He said the road failure occurred on a portion of the property that had yet to be developed, so it didn’t pose a risk to the investments of property owners in Wildflower.
When asked whether he thought the roads in the rest of the development were sound, Garner pointed to the fact that the county’s erosion control department had signed off on them.
“I asked the county that and the county said they were originally put in according to the guidelines,” Garner said.
Development without regulation
When Atlanta-based developer Robert Ullmann unveiled his vision for Wildflower through his company Ultima Carolina LLC four years ago, he promised a full-service, upscale residential community.
“There’s a reason people are drawn to these mountains,” said Ullman in Wildflower’s press materials. “The wrong kind of development can destroy that; the right kind can help to preserve it. This is not just about higher elevations. It’s also about higher standards.”
Right from the start, though, the development faced opposition from local residents who felt it would strain the county’s resources and ruin Cowee Mountain. Ullman appeared alongside Stacy Guffey, the county’s planning director at the time, in a public meeting to make his case.
“You are not going to avoid development, and you are not going to completely prohibit development,” Ullman told the crowd. “If you think Macon County won’t change, I can assure you it will.”
Ullman said the best people could hope for was to pass some land-use regulations to prevent irresponsible developers from ruining the mountains.
“He did make the point at that meeting that the county was wide open,” Guffey said. “And that if we had had rules, he would have abided by them.”
While that conversation seems prescient now, the fact remains that when Wildflower went through its initial permitting process the county didn’t have subdivision or steep slope ordinances. Cowee Mountain is a steep area covered with colluvial soil that is essentially low-density rock and soil debris, and prone to instability.
In order to build a road system, Wildflower had to comply with the county’s erosion control ordinance, and the county signed off on a series of erosion control plans for various parts of the road system. The erosion ordinance was narrowly tailored to keep muddy runoff out of creeks but didn’t deal with underlying road construction methods.
Guffey claims stability problems with the road system were already evident at the time, but the county lacked regulations to do anything about it.
“The truth is that when I worked for the county, a lot of us knew there would be problems with those roads,” Guffey said. “It’s really one of the reasons we felt such urgency to create a subdivision ordinance.”
Macon County now has a subdivision ordinance that includes road standards and a surety bond to guarantee that developers meet those standards, allowing the county to bill a developer if it has to go in and repair shoddy work. A committee is also currently in the process of drafting a steep slope ordinance that would create standards for soil compaction, cut and fill slopes, and road grades.
Guffey, who works as a consultant now, addressed the slope development committee on the implications Wildflower’s road failure has on the county at a meeting last week. His message was clear.
“It’s a private property but when you see it overlaid on a potential landslide map... if the potential is there it’s there,” Guffey said. “There’s not just one slide, there’s a number of them. What will they do to the streams that run down through there onto other peoples’ properties?”
Macon County’s environmental services supervisor Matt Mason has the responsibility of enforcing the county’s erosion control ordinance. Mason succeeded Josh Ward, who had the position when Wildflower first applied for building permits.
Mason said the county signed off on Wildflower’s land disturbance permits in phases, each of which required erosion control plans for roads and home sites in the development.
According to Mason the county still has access to close to $80,000 that Ultima set aside in a surety bond to guarantee Wildflower’s erosion control measures. The county has informed Ullman that he’s responsible for correcting the damage caused when a road collapse triggered a landslide.
“I’ve actually talked to the owner and we’re requiring him to hire an engineer to submit a report on how to stabilize the road and he’s willing to do that,” Mason said. “If not then it could be a problem.”
Mason said the county still has the authority to enforce the erosion control ordinance because the project is still open, but he said Wildflower is not currently in violation of the ordinance.
“They’re not in violation. We’ve not fined them. We sent out a letter informing them it needs to be corrected,” Mason said.
Mason said he has spent the last year trying to re-draft the county’s soil and erosion ordinance to include soil compacting standards, but the revised ordinance is still in the review process. For now, he said, the county’s position with Wildflower is limited to enforcing the ordinance that was in place when the development filed its paperwork.
“If we had had a subdivision ordinance or a steep slope ordinance in place, we could have done it differently,” Mason said. “We want to have safe and smart development, and the bottom line is that costs a bit of money.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Wildlower’s road issues is that some of the compromised roadways are actually driveways serving home sites that have already been sold. The owners are now responsible for the maintenance of those driveways, without which the home sites are worth next to nothing.
At a county meeting in November, county commissioners asked planning director Jack Morgan whether Wildflower had filed for bankruptcy, raising concerns about the project’s financial viability going forward.
Brian Garner, the project’s general manager, said he could not elaborate on Wildflower’s financial situation.
“As far as I know we’re still doing what we need to do,” Garner said. “We’re still on the ground running.”
Robert Ullman, the developer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Guffey said the county has cause to worry if Wildflower goes under.
“One of the fears is if it’s in foreclosure, who pays for that damage?” Guffey said.