By Dave Russell
The first sign that something bad was happening last Thursday afternoon was a loud pop. It got Travis Clark’s attention. He looked in that direction as more pops followed. Clark watched as the deck of a house about 50 yards away pitched forward, pushed by the home it was attached to.
The house, in turn, was pushed by a landslide slipping down a steep slope leading up to the site of a 500-unit apartment complex under construction.
“Once it popped it slowly moved forward,” Clark said. “You could see the whole building move and then it just set down real easy.”
Clark’s mother, Sheri Deitz, owns the Catamount Homes development, a 10-unit student housing complex of two-bedroom homes on Cullowhee’s Cavalier Drive.
The steep hill above Catamount Homes is part of Western Carolina University’s Millennial Campus. The apartment construction project is a public-private partnership project between WCU and Wilmington-based Zimmer Development Co.
The grading contractor is Site Development Corp., based out of Cliffside in Rutherford County. The company has an equipment yard on U.S. 23/441, across from New Savannah Baptist Church.
Clark had been to Catamount Homes earlier that day.
Wednesday night’s rains had already sent a thick layer of mud down the slope into the development. The orange soup flowed into recently sodded grass, on the road and driveways and into crawlspaces underneath the houses.
“We came back out when the rain got heavier,” he said. “We knew something was going to happen.”
The house lurched forward off its foundation at about 2:45 p.m.
“Mom started screaming and hollering and knocking on the doors,” Clark said. “There was a truck parked there and we thought someone might still be inside.”
Clark dialed 911.
Deitz had a key and they forced their way through the jammed door to make sure the house was empty, he said.
Renters Ashlyn Long, of Fuquay-Varina and Erica Hayes of Raleigh were in class at the time. Both senior women play on the WCU softball team.
Emergency personnel showed up quickly, Clark said.
Mud from the site has been an ongoing issue since the first deluge in April, Deitz said Thursday morning before the larger slide struck the house.
“We had two happen in July, we had one happen last Sunday (Oct. 27) and then this one happened,” she said.
Deitz installed barriers about 4 inches high to keep the mud out of the crawlspaces of her units. They didn’t work. Of the 10 units, five have had mud ooze underneath them, she said.
“There’s just so much mud you can’t do anything to stop it,” Deitz said. “I thought they had it fixed, but it has been like a series of Band-Aids. It’s probably as bad or worse this time.”
Deitz has a stronger bond than most landlords with her tenants, she said.
“The students have been absolutely wonderful, but they are getting fed up with it,” she said. “They are having to walk through mud to get into their homes. They have to drive through mud. What I want to do more than anything is to protect them, but I can’t do anything. It’s out of my hands.”
Deitz has met with staff from Site Development Corporation, she said.
“They have come down, they have tried to be nice to me, they have fixed things,” she said. “But it’s just fixed for the moment, until the next time it happens. And it is going to happen again until they do something at the bottom of that hill to stop the mud. They’re building nice apartments up there and I have nothing against apartments, but they are destroying me.”
Deitz said that Thursday morning she had “no faith whatsoever” that the problems would be fixed.
About five hours later, she was proved right.
Steve Beasley, a Jackson County code enforcement officer in charge of erosion issues, was on the scene Thursday morning during a constant rain.
The property under construction is under state jurisdiction, but once the sediment hit Deitz’s property, it is a county issue, he said.
“They had a blowout up there due to the heavy rain we had last night,” he said. “We’ve had three or four. They keep coming down on this lady’s property.”
Beasley said he would seek to stop work on the Millennial Campus site until a new plan is in place to address the issue.
“What we try to do is stop their building permits,” he said. “Probably what is going to happen is we have authority to stop inspections until it is remedied.”
Without inspections, work will eventually have to come to a stop.
“It’s a tough one to fix,” he said as he gestured up the slope. “But it has got to happen.”
The water backed up in a basin and ran over one side and came down in a different location from past problems, he said.
“It was just too much water for the basin they had,” he said. “They’ve moved the problem. And it started at the top. The water has to be diverted away from this slope.”
Offsite sedimentation is a violation, and Beasley has an eye on Long Branch, which flows parallel to Cavalier Drive, the road through Catamount Homes, he said.
Only a little sediment made its way to the stream this time, he said.
The cause of the landslide later that Thursday was the failure of a retention pond at the top of the slope, he said.
The county does not have the authority to directly halt construction, Permitting and Code Enforcement Director Tony Elders said Tuesday.
“We have suspended building inspections, though,” he said. “Erosion control we do not govern. That is done by the state.”
Zimmer will be able to work up to the point that county inspections are necessary to continue.
The buildings under construction on the site are not in violation, he said.
“We do have a provision in our Unified Development Ordinance that allows us to hold up inspections when someone is under a notice of violation from a state or federal agency,” he said. “And they are. Hopefully they’ll get something done soon. It’s not a good situation.”
Meanwhile, Long and Hayes began moving out Friday.
“I’m trying to find a place and hope there is something available in the middle of the year,” Hayes said.
Both women have cars and can commute to campus if necessary, she said.
Residents of the other five homes adjacent to the construction site were told they’d have to evacuate. As of Monday, only the resident of Building 1, the farthest from the slide, had moved back in.