Certain photographic images are circulated so widely that, over time, they achieve iconic status. At the local level, Skip Metheney‘s photos of the deluge of muddy water tearing through his neighborhood during heavy rainfalls have become so well-known that they’re often reprinted in grass-roots propaganda highlighting problems associated with steep-slope development.
In one photograph, a steady stream of liquid mud easily hurdles not one, not two, but three silt fences. In another, a Caterpillar sits lopsided in the center of a graded construction site, while a torrent overflows a silt fence and cascades onto the road. Metheney, who says his Spooks Branch Road property fell victim to construction activity at the neighboring Grove Park Cove luxury-home development, began posting the photos on a Web page in the summer of 2006. “This is the website I created to provide the city with a means to ‘see’ what is happening in this neighborhood without being here 24/7. Most of the events occurred when city staff was not available,” he explained in a recent e-mail. Last updated in July of 2007, the Web site (www.main.nc.us/drumdance/erosion) chronicles assorted storm-water-runoff events below Grove Park Cove.
Nor was Metheny shy about sharing his pictures. They’ve found their way into the hands of everyone from local media to grassroots groups such pushing for stricter regulation of steep-slope development. “Back in June of 2006, a picture was worth a thousand or more words in getting the issue addressed by the city,” Metheny writes. “It’s difficult to assess the severity of an event after it is over and evidence has washed away.”
Before breaking ground, notes Grove Park Cove’s Web site, the development team partnered with an environmental consulting firm to “create the most beautiful, sustainable community possible while minimizing impact on the land.” And though the developers don’t expressly label their project green, they do hint at it, noting that 20 of the site’s 30 acres will remain undisturbed. The Web site also promises strict adherence to state and local ordinances: “Multiple strategy sessions were held with the engineers, city officials and land use experts to ensure that the subdivision, once fully realized, would not only meet the ordinances’ stringent requirements, but would actually exceed them. The result: Grove Park Cove. A master-planned mountain community that was designed to not only maximize the use and benefit of the property, but also safeguard its surrounding environment.”
Government documents, however, tell a different story. Last August—a few weeks after Metheny widely e-mailed a YouTube video of a mud flow that tore through his back yard during a heavy rain, even swamping the dog pen—the developers were issued notices of violation by both the state Division of Water Quality and the city of Asheville. (When Heather Rayburn of the Mountain Voices Alliance caught wind of it, she forwarded the footage to city, county and state officials, noting, “Skip has tried for more than a year now to get this problem fixed without success.”) More than seven months later, the issue may seem like water under the bridge—but not to Metheny, who says the problems are ongoing. On March 18, local attorney Gary Davis filed a lawsuit on behalf of Metheny and his wife, Katherine, against the Grove Park Cove development team for violating the federal Clean Water Act and damaging the couple’s property.
The development’s Web site now maintains that significant effort has been made “to design a storm water retention system that would minimize on-site infrastructure and reduce the runoff volume to a level at or below the pre-Grove Park Cove development state.”
The project’s engineering team “worked with the city of Asheville to meet all current regulations, and went a step further. … With installation now complete, the site’s permanent drainage system includes a series of underground storage tanks and three additional above ground storm water plunge pools. The combination of these devices ensures that storm water will be managed in the most effective manner possible.”
But if another mud flow tears through Metheny’s yard, he will surely make it known.