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LANDSLIDE THREAT — Wes and Jane Lee have been living in limbo for over a year after a landslide undermined the only road that leads to their home. Here, they discuss options for a resolution at a Waynesville town board meeting in May.

A landslide that threatened to take out the only road in and out of a Waynesville couple’s home off U.S. 276 is being fixed after months of limbo over whether they could stay in their home.

But it isn’t the only good news in the ongoing saga.

Thanks to an in-house engineer and adept equipment operators, the town of Waynesville turned a $350,000 landslide repair into a $40,000 job by doing the work itself, save the cost of bringing in loads of rock to shore up the collapsing bank.

A narrow road perched above a 60-foot embankment was first destabilized in February 2019, when the steep bank slid out from under it. An old water line that ran through the top of the bank had broken, leaking water into the slope.

Town crews fixed back the bank while it was still saturated, and it ended up sliding again — even worse than the first time.

“It had been eroding away by the minute, but in an effort of trying to take a bad situation and fix it quickly, we might have done more harm,” explained Preston Gregg, town engineer. “We just dumped rock over the bank and water became trapped and just built up.”

‘Ours to fix’

The town spent several months last year consulting with engineers and contractors to get a handle on what it would take for a more permanent fix.

The first order of business, however, had been determining whether the town was even liable for fixing the slide.

“They don’t know whether our water line broke and caused the slide, or whether the slide caused the water line to break,” Gregg said. “It’s inconclusive.”

Adding insult to injury, the base of the slope had been destabilized decades ago by excavation by another property owner.

Either way, since the slide was jeopardizing a city street — albeit one leading to a single home — town leaders took ownership of it.

“We felt like it was ours to fix,” Gregg said.

The next question, however, was one of economics. The estimated cost of repairs was $350,000, with no guarantee the problematic slope wouldn’t slide again in the future.

The town had already fixed another slide in a different section of the same slope, pointing to potentially larger issues.

Town officials debated whether to cut their losses and buy out the home at the end of the Plott Heights Road rather than trying to save it by fixing the slide.

“We would buy the house and tear it down and close the street. Then if it slides, it slides,” Town Manager Rob Hites said at a town board meeting in February, during one of many discussions on the conundrum over the past several months.

Town board members agreed the idea had merit.

“With all due respect, do we pay $350,000 to save a house that may or may not be worth that much?” Alderman Chuck Dickson said.

Unable to decide, the board put off the issue, only to find themselves right back in the same discussion at a meeting in May.

“It kind of balances out if we try to buy the house versus fix that slide,” Mayor Gary Caldwell said.

Let us stay

The decision was ultimately swayed by an appeal from the homeowners, Wes and Jane Lee, who attended the town’s meeting in May.

“I know this is a very tough situation. Are you guys open at all to a buyout?” Alderman Anthony Sutton asked.

“That wouldn’t be our choice,” said Jane Lee.

She said they had lived in their house for 35 years, raised their children in it and planned to live out their retirement there.

“I don’t know of any place we could get that would be comparable to what we have,” said Jane. “It is incredible what housing costs.”

The water line break that presumably started the mess was put in years ago to serve the Mountain Research Station test farm. Ironically, the Lees had allowed the water line easement to run across their property out of good will.

“It was a gentlemen’s agreement where we said ‘Sure we wouldn’t mind doing that,’” Jane Lee said.

Aldermen asked whether doing nothing was an option, but Gregg said it wasn’t.

“They will lose access to their home if it keeps sliding off,” Gregg said.

“We need to act on this, because it will only get larger,” Caldwell agreed. “My heart goes out to you. It’s your home,” Caldwell said.

But with the town reeling from budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus, paying for a $350,000 landslide repair was another story.

“We don’t have any money. Where are we going to get the money to do this?” Dickson asked.

Town Finance Officer Ben Turnmire had the same concern.

“This isn’t currently in the budget,” Turnmire said.

The board asked Turnmire whether they could dip into savings, but town is already poised to take $1.3 million out of savings just to make ends meet, and any more will put the town in a precarious financial situation, Turnmire said.

“Are we that close?” Caldwell asked.

“If you continue to spend out of your fund balance, you will be,” Turnmire replied.

Still, aldermen said it didn’t seem like they had a choice.

“I would like to shake the trees and find out if we can keep them in their house,” Alderman Jon Feichter said.

Working magic

Gregg then began wondering if it was possible to do the landslide repairs in-house. Most cities, let alone towns of Waynesville’s size, wouldn’t have the ability to tackle it.

But Gregg devised a plan to recontour the collapsing slope and hold it in place with mountains of rock. The biggest challenge would be for town workers to balance their equipment on narrow ledges as they worked their way up from the bottom — building a series of benches to serve as their own scaffolding as they went.

“It was kind of playing hopscotch going back and forth as we built it up. We are fortunate to have the skilled operators who can work on the mountainous terrains here in Waynesville,” Gregg said, giving a shout-out to town staff Chris Snyder and Matthew Price for taking it on.

The only remaining question is whether the bank will hold. But Gregg is hopeful.

“It’s laid back to the point it is not a sheer unstable slope,” Gregg said. “Time will tell, but we feel good about the repair that’s been made.”

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