“It doesn’t appear the political stars are aligning themselves for this to pass,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.
The bill has faced a series of ever-changing, ever-mounting obstacles in the N.C. House. Despite half a dozen trips to Raleigh to make their case with legislators, leaders from Lake Junaluska and the town of Waynesville couldn’t overcome the seeds of skepticism surrounding the bill.
Now, the legislature will soon be concluding for the year and time has simply run out.
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, supported the bill and remains hopeful.
“It is not lost and it is certainly possible, it just may take a little more time and a little more patience,” Queen said. “I think this collaboration between the town of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska will eventually come to pass.”
The town and Lake will have another shot at getting the bill through next year. In the meantime, they could bolster their case that a merger is what the majority of residents want by holding an official vote.
Opponents to the merger bent the ear of conservative legislators with complaints that the merger was being foisted upon unwilling property owners.
“I just know mostly in my heart they do not need to be annexed. It will only be the thumb on Waynesville and not the Lake Junaluska Assembly,” said Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville.
Presnell said she thinks Lake Junaluska should incorporate as its own town instead of become part of Waynesville. However, in property owner surveys that option got fewer votes than merging with Waynesville.
Raleigh’s new Republican majority is generally opposed to the annexation of new neighborhoods by cities and towns unless a rigorous process is followed, including an official election to gauge the sentiment of residents.
But the town of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska didn’t go through the official process. Instead, they tried to get a special bill passed, which made sense at the time.
“Our board has been very clear about not wanting to appear that it is undertaking a forced annexation process,” said Town Manager Marcy Oneial.
To Presnell, however, it seemed the town of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska tried to make an “end run” around the official annexation process.
“It is the wolf at the door,” Presnell said.
In reality, the process used by Lake Junaluska and the town of Waynesville had more public meetings and more chances for public input than the statute technically requires. Audio and transcriptions, copious reports, pro and con assessments, and engineer studies filled web pages available for public viewing.
“We have gone way above and beyond what is required in the statute, but we are being taken to task for not following the statute. We were trying to be magnanimous and do it better than the statute,” said Mayor Gavin Brown.
But it didn’t include an official vote.
There was, however, was a mail-in survey. Around 60 percent participated, and of those 60 percent favored merging with Waynesville.
But to Presnell and other opponents, a survey is not the same as an official vote.
It only included one ballot per household, for example. And it polled all property owners, while a formal election would only be open to full-time residents registered to vote at their Lake Junaluska addresses.
Presnell called the surveys “totally absurd” because they used a sliding scale, allowing property owners to express “strong” versus “mild” support. They could also vote for more than one option if more than one future path was OK with them.
“It needed to be an up or down vote. Either a yes or no. But that is not at all what this was,” Presnell said. “Even when they got the surveys back, the only people opening up or handling the surveys are the people who were for annexation.”
Lake Junaluska and Waynesville are technically in Queen’s political district — not Presnell’s. Typically, legislators defer to the hometown legislator on such local issues, putting aside their own personal views on a subject.
But in this case, Presnell’s opposition as a member of the prevailing party apparently trumped Queen’s position as the hometown legislator.
“When those people call you and say we need your help, Joe Sam isn’t helping us, I can’t just ignore them,” Presnell said.
A merger with Waynesville is viewed as a rescue package of sorts for the 765-home residential community with century-old roots as a summer Methodist retreat. Lake Junaluska is burdened by crumbling infrastructure and is over-extended in the level of services it provides. It offers amenities on par with a bona fide town — water, sewer, police, trash pick-up, street maintenance and the like — without actually being a town.