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Wednesday, 03 May 2017 13:56

New fire districts approved despite opposition

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Lake Junaluska residents opposed to a new Waynesville Fire District in their neighborhood will get one anyway, after a 2-1 vote by the Haywood County Board of Commissioners May 1.

“This change won’t change any response for the fire department,” said Haywood County Fire Marshal Johnny Glance.

In January, the town of Waynesville asked Haywood County commissioners to create several new fire districts for areas that, through errors or omission over the years, were not currently assigned to a fire district.

The districts, named Waynesville Rural Fire Districts number two through six, were proposed April 17 and cover small pockets of land in the Knollwood, Reinhart and Shingle Cove subdivisions, as well as at Lake Junaluska. 

But at that April 17 meeting, residents of Lake Junaluska lined up to ask commissioners to allow the Junaluska Community Volunteer Fire Department to service District #2, instead of the Waynesville Fire Department, citing better response times.

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“As we went into that two-week period [after the April 17 meeting and before the May 1 vote], there were some people from that community who had not been heard that were very favorable [to Waynesville],” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said, adding that he gauged Waynesville’s support at about 50 percent. 

The Waynesville Fire Department has served the area for more than five decades, during which time residents of Lake Junaluska paid just $4 per water connection, per month, for fire protection on some of the area’s most valuable homes — an inequitable rate considering the 6 to 10 cents per $100 assessed property value other residents pay. Sorrells said that there had been no issues with service over the years.

That $4 was upped to $8 last summer, but making the new district Waynesville’s turf — at a 6 cents per $100 rate — will earn the town an additional $100,000 per year beginning July 1.

That additional revenue will help pay for the eight new firefighters the town hired last year to comply with OSHA staffing recommendations; the hirings resulted in an almost 10 percent jump in Waynesville property taxes. 

Had the district not been approved, it would have instead cost Waynesville about $80,000 in revenue from the current monthly charges.

Republican Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the lone “nay” on the board, which rarely sees dissenting votes cast; continuing a theme of cooperation dating back to former Board Chairman Mark Swanger’s tenure, commissioners often craft compromises that lead to most votes being unanimous. 

Ensley said he agreed that the Junaluska Fire Department should cover the lake district. 

“When you look at the map of what Lake Junaluska has and what Waynesville has, it just makes sense,” he said. 

Sorrells further justified his vote by pointing out that residents do retain some recourse. 

“This does not stop citizens from coming back to you with their own petition,” Glance told commissioners during the meeting. 

Residents may jointly or individually petition commissioners for removal from the new district and for inclusion in the existing Junaluska Fire District provided their property is contiguous to the Junaluska District, and in the case of multiple properties, contiguous to each other. 

Additionally, all residents of any property seeking a change must sign the petition, meaning that in the case of condos or other multi-unit residences, a majority of owners simply won’t do — 100 percent of owners must be on board with the change. 

After submitting the petition, any change would have to go through the same public hearing process that created the new districts. 

The other districts, Waynesville Rural Fire Districts numbered three through six, all passed without opposition from commissioners; the revenue collected from these areas will be negligible, especially since some contain mostly vacant land. 

Commissioner Bill Upton was out of town and did not attend the meeting.

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