The Transylvania Times -

Flooding Problems On Roads To Continue – Transylvania County, NC


Last updated 12/4/2020 at 4:08pm

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to fix the landside on Cascade Lake Road on Dec. 7. (Times photo by Alex Perri)

(This story has been updated.)

In the rainiest county in North Carolina, road conditions are notoriously dangerous after large storms, and conditions are only expected to worsen as increasing development and climate change cause more roads to flood, more frequently and for a longer period of time.

The N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) has plans to repair one recent road landslide on Cascade Lake Road after October's Hurricane Zeta caused a massive washout that left the route impassable, but plans to raise the elevation of other roads that frequently flood in Transylvania County are likely several years away.

Zeta also left many Little River residents essentially stranded on an island as the two access roads in and out of their community were blocked for days with floodwaters on Hart Road and on Cascade Lake Road (in a separate location from the landslide.) The road conditions present a serious safety concern as drivers often choose to drive through floodwaters if they need to get home or to town, and there are reports of people driving through the narrow strip of road left beside the Cascade Lake Road landslide – an "extremely dangerous" act according to DOT engineer Ben Williams.

The DOT plans to start roadwork on the Cascade Lake Road landslide on Dec. 7. Williams said the complicated repair would be finished sometime between Dec. 18 and Jan. 1.

Half of the road has collapsed down a sheer cliff into the Little River below, and the DOT has contracted a Colorado engineering firm to help construct a retaining wall to rebuild the gravel road. DOT also has plans to raise the elevation of Hart Road and Cascade Lake Road, where they frequently flood. Both projects are still in the planning phase undergoing a hydrology assessment, will cost several million dollars and are years away, according to Williams.

Resident Mike Bazinet lives off Cascade Lake Road and is concerned about the lengthened emergency response time to residents in the area. The landslide changed what used to be a 15-20 minute drive to town into a 40+ minute one along the long, bumpy, gravel route.

"There's the added inconvenience, but I think in terms of my neighbors and myself, I think my major concern is really the emergency access and the additional response time it would take for an ambulance or a fire truck or anything like that," he said. "The odds of that are low, but they're not zero, so it's something that is really motivating us to want to seek some answers in terms of what the remediation of this issue is going to be."

He also said mail service has stopped to his and his neighbor's houses.

Resident Gary Epperson also lives off Cascade Lake Road and said in last month's storm floodwaters blocked the only entry and exit roads to his community on Cascade Lake Road and on Hart Road. While Epperson said flooding in roadways is common in his area, the frequency and severity of floods have increased significantly in the past few years, impacting many people's lives.

"We only have really two exits to exit out of here and whenever they put those (road blocks) up, you know, whether it rains or not, people have to go to work," Epperson said. "They have to go to get food. They have normal everyday things you have to do to drive for, and we have very little choice with some of the people that have to go to work. And if the flood waters are not too high, they drive through them and that's happening quite commonly."

In the latest flooding incident, Epperson said he had to refill his prescription on a day when the road was blocked but wasn't able to get to the store.

Historically, when Hart Road floods, Eagles Nest Camp has allowed residents to bypass the floodwaters by driving through their property to access to Everett Road. However, Camp Director Noni Waite-Kucera said the camp isn't always able to provide access to neighbors, such as during a camp session when kids are all around or when the property is flooded as well as Hart Road.

"Ever since I moved here (20 years ago) we've had periodical flooding with the area on Cascade Lake Road and we never really had too much flooding over on the exit that we use over on Hart Road...but lately its becoming more and more of an issue," Epperson said. "We just seem to be having more and more flooding happening."

In years past, Epperson said both routes into town would flood occasionally, but now it seems even a minor rain event leaves the roads underwater.

French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said there are a few reasons flooding is getting worse in the region.

"One is climate change," he said. "It used to be pretty unusual to get these 2,3,4,5-inch storms and now it seems like we get them like every month," Carson said. "The second thing that makes it worse is development, particularly in a place like Transylvania County that doesn't have a storm water ordinance. The way that works is if you build a big parking lot, a big shopping center, that water used to soak into the ground, and now it runs off the parking lot and, so, you get a bigger amount of flow in a shorter period of time."

Carson said he himself lives near a river, and he noticed his property flooding routinely after a development was put in above his property.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires some cities to have designated storm water ordinances as a part of the Clean Water Act, but Transylvania County is too small for the law to be in effect.

The result is most development in the county is not required to adhere to any storm water run off ordinances or "no-rise" certifications (a permit that certifies a certain building or structure will not raise flood levels), except in rare circumstances.

No rise certifications ensure that a building will not raise the designated base flood elevation, but are only mandated by law in what are called "floodways" or "non encroachment areas" – essentially areas right next to a river.

These certifications require specialized engineering and hydraulic analysis to be permitted.

They are expensive and sometimes property owners don't even know these ordinances exist, said county code enforcement administrator Mike Owen.

However, buildings in what are designated as "floodplains" or areas next to waterways that have either a 1 percent or 0.2 percent annual chance of flooding do not require certifications ensuring the base flood elevation will rise. Increasingly, however, storms impacting the county are causing flooding in these areas that are "technically" designated as a "100-year" or "500-year" floodplain, but flood several times a year."

In a county experiencing growing development, the result could mean flooding will continue to get worse and be unmitigated by regulations.

Additionally, infrastructure changes to address routinely flooded roads will be several years away as the DOT continues to experience budget woes.

The N.C. Office of the State Auditor reported in May that the agency overspent their budget by $742 million last year and was forced to put hundreds of projects on hold.

Anecdotally, Waite-Kucera said she's been hearing from the state for around 20 years that they would be fixing the flooding issues on Hart Road next to her camp and she was skeptical the redesign would happen anytime soon.

For residents who live in remote areas where the access points regularly flood, this news means frustrations with road infrastructure in the county will drag on for years.

On the washed-out portion of Cascade Lake Road, Williams said he's heard some residents have taken to driving past the road closure signs anyways, and he warned heavily against doing so.

"We have the road closed and signed, and as far as liability legality we're covered, but I've heard word that people keep driving through...and that is extremely dangerous," he said. "I don't even like walking on it, but if people are driving their trucks across it, or whatever, it's extremely dangerous in doing that."

Epperson said some folks who end up getting trapped by floodwaters take the risk and drive through the water anyways. Many don't have the ability to stay with friends or in a hotel while they wait for the water to subside.

"We pay taxes here," Epperson said. "I paid a lot I paid more taxes than Trump does. It's kind of disappointing that I don't have access to getting out of my area and there's such a large community back here that has the same issue...This is an issue that's been here for many, many years, but I think it's an issue that should be addressed."


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