ASHEVILLE – It’s a terrifying prospect: the Earth opens and swallows the road, or your yard, or even worse, your house.
While the chance of being directly affected by a sizable sinkhole is low, the occurrence, also known as a ground collapse, happens on average at least once a year in Asheville.
In the last two decades, more than 20 major sinkholes have appeared on roads, in parking lots, yards and under homes. That frequency is greater than in the state’s largest city and speaks to Asheville’s unique terrain and aging underground pipes, which were responsible for almost all collapses.
While no one was hurt, many of the holes caused traffic disruptions, loss of business income and property damage at times exceeding $100,000.
An additional 20 sinkholes in other areas of Western North Carolina have also gotten media attention since 1996. Naturally occurring sinkholes have opened farther west in places such as Tennessee, where one played a role in a bizarre murder involving a Graham County man.
The issue has come to light most recently with the slow collapse of two East Asheville homes into a failing culvert along London Road. A duplex and neighboring house have become unlivable and the owner of one fears he might have to absorb the cost of the loss alone.
“The real issue is that most of our infrastructure is 100-150 years old and it needs to be replaced,” said Leslie Klingner, who in 2012 watched a sinkhole form under her North Asheville home.
“We have the benefit of being in this old town with all the beautiful old buildings, but we also have a lot of old pipes,” said Klingner, who does art and historic preservation for a private company.
City officials have said they are working on fixes. A $5.6 million stormwater utility fund paid for annually by Asheville property owners is slated to install or replace 2,500 feet of pipes by this spring to drain away rain water. But those repairs won’t necessarily save home and business owners from situations like those experienced by Klingner or by owners of the London Road homes.
What’s a ‘sinkhole’?
The term sinkhole brings to mind naturally occurring pits in places such as Florida or east Tennessee with an abundance of limestone or other soluble rock. In those areas underground water sources eat away the rock, sometimes over millions of years, causing holes that can appear slowly – or very suddenly.
A sinkhole in 2014 opened in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in the middle of the National Corvette museum, swallowing eight vintage cars.
And near the Tennessee community of Mount Vernon a sinkhole in 2011 gained a macabre notoriety after the body of David Shannon Sawyer, of Robbinsville was found in a barrel in the 25-foot-deep pit.
Ground collapses caused by human or “anthroprogenic” action can also be called sinkholes, said Daniel Doctor, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. The ground material in those cases is not limestone whose “dissolution happens over geologic time,” Doctor said, but instead easily moved sediment or quick-dissolving gypsum or salt-based rock.
In and around Asheville the cause has almost always been human activity, specifically failed pipes.
The city does not track sinkholes, though it does keep records of repairs to public streets and utilities. Asheville Stormwater Services Manager McCray Coates said the number found by the Citizen-Times through media accounts is likely on the low end.
“There have been many sinkholes within the city’s rights of way over the past years. I would think it has been more than 20,” Coates said.
Of the 22 found by the Citizen-Times, 16 were from failed culverts or storm drain pipes, some belonging to the city, some belonging to property owners. Four happened after water lines failed.
The cause of a sinkhole that opened this summer at the White Labs beer yeast facility construction site was unclear. President and CEO Chris White in August he had expected the nearly $10 million facility at 172 S. Charlotte St. to already be opened. But the sinkhole had developed on the site, which includes a 100-year-old former tobacco warehouse last used by the city as a public works building. This month White didn’t respond to two messages seeking more details about the pit.
Another incident featured a dramatic June 17 building collapse at 290 Haywood St. in West Asheville. The 1949 structure once used as a small engine repair shop was being remodeled for a bakery and restaurant when it crashed to the ground. Emergency workers said at the time the cause was a sinkhole, but this month owner Loren Linck of California said that was incorrect. He declined to talk about what he thought caused the collapse, saying it was under litigation. Rubble from the building remains at the site.
‘Big enough to swallow a car’
Most of the sinkholes in Asheville, 15, appeared in roadways or parking lots. Four happened in yards or under homes and one happened in a public square.
A broken water valve in October 2006 shot a geyser of water into a building at 830 Hendersonville Road and opened a sinkhole “big enough to swallow a car,” according to a report from that time. The incident closed two lanes for most of the day on the busy highway near South Forest Shopping Center.
Officials told business owners in February 2000 of their intent to dig up part of Pack Square to fix a sinkhole they suspected was caused by a leaking fountain and possibly an underground stream.
A commercial area in North Asheville was particularly plagued by the strange pits. Starting in 2003, at least five holes opened up on properties on the west side of Merrimon Avenue just south of Beaver Lake.
A hole in July 2007 opened in the parking lot of the Asheville AAA office at 1000 Merrimon Ave. and stretched as wide as three parking spaces. It appeared to be more than six feet deep. Another hole during that time period was as deep as 35 feet.
Following a 2013 storm, debris washed from one of the sinkholes into an eco-filtration pond on the edge of Beaver Lake, forcing a state-mandated cleanup.
Craig Friedrich, owner of Ski Country Sports, spent more than $210,000 trying to fix two holes. The cause was believed to be large drain pipes installed around 1978 by a previous property owner. The pipes channel a creek that flows into the lake with other pipes from adjoining properties apparently linked to it.
Friedrich sued the city, claiming the local government should be held liable for “an unreasonable volume” of water going through the private pipes. The courts, however, sided with the municipality. Friedrich did not respond to a phone call this month seeking comment.
A truck-sized hole appeared in October 2014 in the parking lot of the Buncombe County permits and inspection building following heavy rains. Builders constructing the four-story City Centre office building at the corner of College and South Charlotte streets found a manhole leading to an underground stream. The 1922 four-foot wide pipe was channeling the Town Branch stream under an urbanized part of the city, but part had collapsed, causing the sinkhole on the neighboring site.
Rusty Pulliam, developer of the $20 million project, said they had failed to find the pipe despite doing about 50 soil borings and a title search looking back at 50 years of property records. Moving the pipe would cost almost $500,000. They felt stuck, Pulliam said.
“We were pregnant with a project and couldn’t turn around and go back,” he said.
In a compromise, the developer and the city each contributed $200,000 and the property owner added $100,000 to pay for relocation, allowing construction to move forward.
Some of the worst sinkhole incidents have happened under homes, something that has occurred at least twice in 20 years.
Klingner in April 2012 found residue from a small flood in her basement and a 10-foot hole under her Blair Street home near Charlotte Street. A 16-inch terra cotta stormwater drainage line had given way, making her house unsafe. The historical curator and her boyfriend stayed in an apartment while she continued to pay the mortgage on the 1,100-square-foot bungalow she bought in 2007 at the peak of the housing boom for $242,000.
“The storm drain pipe had been put in before that house was ever built, so I was unaware of it. And when it collapsed there was imminent danger not just to my house but to other houses on the block,” she said.
The city’s initial reaction was that the pipe was Klingner’s responsibility since it was on private property and there was no recorded easement — a piece of private property through which the government has a right to run a pipe or other utilities. But eventually she and three other property owners reached an agreement with the city to split the nearly $156,000 cost to move the line. The municipality picked up 75 percent, leaving the four property owners to pay the rest.
Klingner said her insurance company agreed pretty quickly to help pay but disagreed over how much, leading to protracted negotiations. Klingner declined to say how much the company paid in the end or how much she spent out of pocket, but described the total as “significant.”
A lot of the cost came from her insistence on maintaining “historic integrity” of the 1924 home, she acknowledged, and “wanting to do everything the right way.” Last year, the restored home won a Griffin Award from the Asheville and Buncombe County Preservation Society. Klingner still owns the home but lives in a house she bought nearby on Sunset Drive.
The other incident involving homes started in December 2015 when Terry Simmons first noticed a hole at his rental duplex at 225 London Road. When he bought the home for $107,000 in 2007 he was not told about the culvert, Simmons said. Now the house has a cracked foundation and is clearly sinking into the Earth.
Next door another home is sinking at 221 London Road. It belongs to a woman who bought it from Western North Carolina Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps poor people build and buy homes. Habitat officials said they could not comment because of a confidentiality agreement and because the nonprofit is in a dispute over one of the properties. Tax records show that home valued at $137,900.
The city has told Simmons the pipe is not a public responsibility since it is on private property. His insurance company has said damage from the sinkhole is not covered.
Meanwhile, he is continuing to pay mortgage and insurance on the house which has no renters. Moving it would cost $40,000 and demolition would be about $20,000, he said. Simmons, who owns more than 30 rental homes in and around Asheville, said he’s afraid the situation could destroy his credit and eventually his business.
“In my opinion, the pipe is still not my responsibility. I didn’t put it there. I didn’t know it was there.”
Where are the pipes?
Part of the sinkhole problem in Asheville comes down to records. Notations on pipes from more than a century ago may have been lost or never written down since their location was deemed unimportant. In other cases, private pipes may have been joined to other private pipes and eventually became part of a public system by default.
That’s not uncommon in older towns, said Dan Pliszka, the risk manager for Charlotte-Mecklenberg.
“We try to map through GIS the new stuff that goes in, but we don’t know where a lot of the old stuff is — and especially once it’s been abandoned,” he said.
But that metropolitan area, with a footprint more than six times the size of Asheville, may have less of a problem. Pliszka estimates the area experiences one or fewer sinkholes a year.
That may be because of the high number of old pipes in Asheville, a remnant of austerity following the Great Depression. The city was hit particularly hard from that historic downturn because of widespread real estate speculation and borrowing for public projects that amounted to some of the greatest per capita debt in the country. Unlike other local governments, the city didn’t default on its loans but insisted on paying them, inhibiting infrastructure repair for decades.
Former Asheville risk manager John Miall said old pipes, relatively unregulated private stormwater systems and steep terrain has led to sinkholes and other problems. During his 1990-2005 tenure Miall said it was “not unusual to have one or two such events in a year.”
Often private property owners would install a culvert to reduce flooding from a stream. Decades later as more development occurred uphill that culvert would eventually be overwhelmed.
“Property developers historically looked to make properties usable, and I think over time with greater runoff, those systems weren’t designed to carry the loads that are happening in today’s world,” Miall said.
He questions whether the city has used the stormwater fund effectively. The $5.6 million fund derided by some as the “rain tax,” includes a $250,000 increase this year paid for by a 5 percent rate hike charged to property owners.
Coates, the stormwater services director, said in addition to planned line improvements, the fund is used to respond to unexpected failures.
“The city’s goal is to make the repairs as quickly as possible,” he said.
How to protect yourself
Avoiding sinkhole-prone places in the first place is naturally the best course of action, experts and experienced homeowners say.
When buying a home, a title search is typically done for the last 30 years, said Charles Worley, a real estate attorney and former Asheville mayor.
Those searches should pick up storm drain easements that date back further than three decades because each new record should note the right of way. But sometimes they don’t carry forward. For that reason, it may be a good idea when building or buying in an old area of the city to go back as far as 100 years, Worley said. Additional costs to the homeowner will depend on the time it takes, he said.
“It depends on the chain of title. Sometimes it’s real quick. You could probably do it in less than 30 minutes.”
It’s also good to check existing city maps that can be found online at mapAsheville. The map doesn’t include what the city considers private lines, so to locate those or any unrecorded public lines a good survey should be done, say Coates and Klingner. That’s something the historic curator said she did when buying her second North Asheville home.
With insurance, a homeowner could ask specifically for coverage. The additional cost would have to be weighed against a buyer’s comfort level with risk.
If a property owner is already dealing with the unlikely but expensive situation of a sinkhole there are some avenues to try.
In the case of responsibility, a homeowner could do an expanded title search looking for public easements. With the City Centre project, the city did find an easement that the developer’s 50-year search didn’t locate, something that led to the compromise over relocating the line.
Even if a written easement can’t be found, it might still be possible to prove a pipe is part of a public system if other connections can be located. That is essentially what happened with Klingner, she said.
Coates said the city evaluates each situation on “a case-by-case basis.”
“Consideration would include potential impact to city infrastructure. In the case with the Blair Street project, the failure of the system would have impacted Charlotte Street,” the stormwater services manager said.
Worley said the city is not likely to quickly volunteer to pay for the problem. In theory, a homeowner could take the situation “to an extreme,” the attorney and former mayor said.
“A homeowner can stop up that easement at the point it enters his property and then it backs up the system. That is extreme, but it will certainly get the attention of whoever is putting that water in the drain up above the owner’s property line.”
If, however, a culvert is truly only on private property and has few or no connections, the owner may be solely responsible.
With insurance, it is unlikely that sink holes are specifically mentioned in a policy, said Sam Craig, one of the few local attorneys who practice “bad faith” insurance law. But the companies will often point to broad language in a policy to say they are not covered.
“They will exclude as many things as they possibly can in their language,” Craig said.
Coverage in this situation is rarely clear-cut and it is likely worth the time of the insurance policy holder to try to negotiate as Klingner did, he said.
When it comes to hiring an insurance attorney, only the biggest cases involving hundreds of thousands of dollars are worth it, Craig said. The worst thing an insurance company can face is a judgement showing they failed to honor the contract. Such “bad faith” judgments can give triple damages, but even at that level, “much can be eaten up by my fees,” he said. Generally, cases don’t end in bad faith judgments but are instead settled for less money.
Doing the research
The location of stormwater pipes in Asheville can be found online at mapAsheville: arcgis.ashevillenc.gov/mapAsheville/
Choose stormwater pipes in the layer list. The map doesn’t include what the city considers private lines, so to locate those or any unrecorded public lines a good survey should be done.