Landslides can't be stopped, but we can use common sense

Jan 24, 2013

There’s a significant movement across the state (and nation, for that matter) for less government regulation. A quick look at the millions of pages of laws, rules and ordinances in North Carolina would lead reasonable people to agree fewer rules would be a good thing.

It is important, however, to look at the issues and reasons behind each law, rule or ordinance before pigeon-holing it into the “excessive government regulation” category.

For example, take the body of state and local laws that govern land-disturbing activities — ones that potentially impact water quality or create safety issues when it comes to building in mountain areas.

Last week, there were at least 16 known landslides after four days of rain in Haywood County. That doesn’t include the slides that may have happened in remote areas where nobody lived or traveled to notice.

Luckily, there were no deaths, there were no occupied homes that collapsed or were washed away as has happened here in the past and the damages were relatively minor considering what could have happened.

Those who work in the emergency management area reported only minor flooding, even though the rainfall in some areas wasn’t far from what was dumped in the county in the aftermath of tropical storms in 2004. Lower water levels were attributed to the rainfall being spread out over a longer period of time.

Mother Nature is a powerful force — one that is beyond the control of humankind. What we can do is learn the best and safest ways to cope with known truths: 1) torrential rains over a sustained period that lead to mountainsides slipping away; 2) certain soil types are more prone to slide than others; 3) the site and method of how mountain land is disturbed plays an important role in future stability of an area and  4) future landslides are likely to reoccur in areas where there have been problems in the past.

The county beefed up its slope development rules about five years ago to better address these type of situations. There was considerable discussion at the time and an early version of the ordinance was relaxed to address economic concerns of those in the housing and construction industry.

So far, the vast majority of the landslides in recent years have been in areas developed before the new regulations took place. That could be a sign the rules are working, or, given the downturn in construction about that time, it could signal there hasn’t been enough time to truly gauge the effectiveness.

Given the grave reminder of that what happens in one small area of a mountain can impact all who are downhill (and even those above if access is impeded), perhaps it is time to take another look at slope rules in the state, towns and county. That look should not be one that aims to gut the rules, but one that considers why the rules were adopted, whether they are adequate and whether the safety measures they were intended to address can be strengthened.

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