North Carolina Families Await Cleanup Following Mountain Landslide

The 18 North Carolina families displaced by a landslide are still waiting for their road to be cleared and the ground above their homes to be stabilized before they can return.

Ghost Town in the Sky, the company that owns the top of the mountain, has declared bankruptcy and may not be able to pay for the stabilization work, The Asheville Citizen-Times reported Sunday.

And even if the company can pay, some say the area is simply prone to landslides and would still be unsafe.

Those who want more restrictions on mountaintop development say the landslide creates new momentum for legal changes, but it still may not be enough.

On Feb. 5, a 30-foot wall of mud and rocks swept down Buck Mountain clearing a swath 175 feet wide in places. It damaged at least three homes and cut off access to 37 others, more than half of which were vacation homes.

“It’s frustrating seeing no end in sight,” resident Deborah Reynolds told the newspaper during a community supper held nightly for landslide victims at the Maggie Valley United Methodist Church.

Reynolds’ home wasn’t damaged by the landslide, but her father’s was. Neither has been able to return home.

Investigators haven’t determined the cause of the slide, but state geologist Rick Wooten said material from a retaining wall system built by Ghost Town in the Sky within the past three years contributed to the slide.

“Obviously, the wall failed and it contributed material to the movement,” Wooten said.

Ghost Town engineer Pat Burgin said the park won’t rebuild a retaining wall but will grade the area back to native soil.

Burgin said the mountaintop could be stabilized in a week after the state clears the road enough to get equipment through and if the weather improves.

“We can have it where it will be deemed safe enough for folks to move back in,” he said.

One problem, however, is getting contractors to take the job because Ghost Town has filed a reorganization plan under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The company’s largest creditor, BB&T, wants the court to order the company be liquidated to pay off its $6 million debt.

According to court papers, the company also owes money to workers, contractors and other businesses. The company has said it has lined up financing for its reorganization and plans to reopen the park in late May.

The landslide highlights a need for a statewide law to regulate development of North Carolina’s mountains, said state Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison.

“This has suggested to me once again the importance of a minimum standard requirement up and down the ridges for steep slopes,” he said. “And I just hope that we don’t have to have a major disaster that takes lives in order to get this legislation through.”

Rapp’s proposal to increase regulations on slope development last year was opposed by builders and the real estate industry and didn’t get out of committee. He said it would be even more difficult to get it introduced in the spring short session this year.