The petition drive captured the signatures of two-thirds of registered voters at the lake and two-thirds of property owners, signaling overwhelming support among the community for merging with next-door Waynesville.
“When you look at the numbers we have gotten back, it’s pretty incredible,” said Ed LaFontaine, president of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Association.
The petition is the latest strategy for Lake Junaluska residents who are pushing for annexation into Waynesville’s town limits. Organizers hope it will be the key to advancing a bill currently before the General Assembly, which has to approve the annexation.
The petition mirrors the results of a less-formal, mail-in survey of Lake Junaluska property owners early last year, in which two-thirds of respondents said they supported annexation.
Lake Junaluska was unable to win support for the measure from the N.C. General Assembly last year, however. Some legislators questioned the legitimacy of the mail-in survey. The survey was discredited for being anonymous and for posing a suite of questions with a sliding scale for each answer.
So the petition was created as a second, more definitive measure of support.
SEE ALSO: The mechanics behind the Lake J petition
“This is a petition that addressed a specific issue with a defined outcome: ‘yes, I support annexation.’ It is one that provided a great degree of focus and removed any degree of ambiguity,” LaFontaine said.
For now, the petition hasn’t been made public, but it may if it gets entered as evidence to the General Assembly.
“People have asked us not to if we could help it, but people always knew that was an option,” Young said. “Our process is open. If anyone wants to come by and see how we are counting and what we are doing, we’ll show them.”
The one-third who haven’t signed the petition don’t necessarily oppose annexation, LaFontaine pointed out.
“When you ask people to sign a petition you get one of four responses. ‘Yes, I will sign it.’ ‘No, I won’t sign it because I am opposed to it.’ Three is, ‘I’ll put it on the corner of my desk and get to it.’ And four is someone who supports it but doesn’t want to sign a petition for whatever reason,” LaFontaine said.
The jury is still out whether the petition numbers will be good enough to convince holdouts in the legislature. Anti-annexation purists don’t like the idea of even one property owner who’s outside the town limits being absorbed into town limits involuntarily.
But that’s an unfair requirement in a democracy, LaFontaine said.
“You couldn’t get 100 percent agreement if you are passing out free ice cream,” LaFontaine added.
Buddy Young, the Lake Junaluska public works director, said the extent of support should be telling.
“If we only had 51 percent in favor on the survey we did a year ago, we never would have gone forward with this. We were all so taken with these numbers,” Young said. “We have done everything we can to poll the community and are now doing everything we can on their behalf.”
Annexation has unanimous support among Waynesville’s elected leaders and two bodies representing Lake Junaluska homeowners; the Lake Junaluska Community Council and the board of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Organization.
A bill endorsing the merger sailed through the N.C. Senate early last year, with N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, carrying the torch. But bills must pass both the Senate and House. And when it came to the House, some Republican legislators had misgivings, fueled by lobbying efforts of property owners who are against the merger.
Davis has pledged to try again during the current legislative session, Young said.
“Senator Davis has been very supportive of this. He has followed the process closely. He has assured us this is one of his top priorities this session,” Young said.
Davis gave the bill a decent but not stellar prognosis.
“I am hopeful we’re going to get that through,” Davis said. “I think the chances are better than 50-50. If it doesn’t happen, it’s not because I didn’t try.”
There was a measure of risk when the team chose to embark down the path of a petition. If the petition didn’t paint the picture they hoped for, it would be too late to reel it back in. But LaFontaine never saw it as a gamble.
“I was confident the community would support this. Particularly if the individuals saw the underlying analysis and the underlying construct for why we were looking to do this, for the viability of Lake Junaluska and the long-term health of the community here. That base resides with annexation. It doesn’t reside with independence,” LaFontaine said.
Catching a lifeline or selling its soul?
A merger with Waynesville is viewed as a rescue package of sorts for the 775-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 services it provides. It offers amenities on par with a bona fide town — water, sewer, police, trash pickup, street maintenance and the like — without actually being a town.
Lake Junaluska leaders and property owners undertook an exhaustive year-long study of the pros and cons and concluded a merger with nearby Waynesville was the best way forward. Being part of a larger town brings economies of scale — be it tackling big ticket road, water and sewer repairs or simply providing day-to-day services.
While lake residents would have to pay town taxes if absorbed by Waynesville, those taxes are less than what homeowners would pay out of pocket to maintain their infrastructure and services should they continue to go it alone.
But holdouts who want Lake Junaluska to remain independent fear a loss of autonomy would undermine the community’s spirit and sense of place. Annexation by Waynesville would also be irrevocable.