“We continue to have hope that it will be taken up,” said Jack Ewing, CEO of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “We are cautiously optimistic.”
But the merger has hit a stumbling block in Raleigh. It has been stuck in the finance committee of the N.C. House of Representatives for weeks.
The origin of the stumbling block isn’t altogether clear, flummoxing even those on the front lines of the bill itself.
At times, it has smelled of petty politics, nothing more than tit-for-tat political bargaining, retribution, horse-trading, pandering or muscle flexing.
At other times, it seemed to come down to the merits and substance of the issue itself — namely whether the merger is tantamount to forced annexation.
Leaders with Lake Junaluska and the town of Waynesville have been working the halls of the General Assembly in hopes of assuaging philosophical misgivings over annexation.
On the surface, the merger could be mistaken for a forced annexation — an attempt by a town to absorb property into its town limits to grow its property tax base. But that’s not the case, said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.
“It didn’t come down the pike that way,” Brown said. “The Lake came to us. It was then and only then that our town said, ‘We will look at whether we want to take them in.’”
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.
The community faced hard choices as it looked to the future: enact huge hikes to its homeowners fees, risk financial insolvency, or flee to the safe harbor of Waynesville. 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.
Lake Junaluska’s leaders have tried to educate state legislators that the merger is not merely masquerading as forced annexation — it is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak.
“Never has Waynesville been the aggressor trying to annex Lake Junaluska. We came to them in the process,” Ewing said.
Ewing said he understands why legislators are asking the questions they are.
“They were wanting to make certain what we did was the appropriate process,” Ewing said.
Pinning down a prognosis for the merger bill at this point is difficult given the fluctuating political climate in Raleigh, even for those with a front-row seat on the House finance committee meetings.
“How to put this …” Brown said when asked about the status of the bill. “We have so many things at play it is hard to ascertain what is going to happen.”
Brown said the bill has become a bit of a “political hockey puck.”
It is unclear why — and even who — is holding the bill up, and thus knowing the right person to lobby has proven difficult.
“I feel like the young man going to ask a girl’s father for her hand in marriage. I can’t get the appropriate person to ask for her hand,” said Brown, who has used courting and marriage analogies often over the course of merger talks.
A twisted road
A legislative bill consecrating the merger already passed the N.C. Senate with flying colors, thanks in large part to the support of Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who shepherded the bill through the necessary committees and Senate floor votes.
The bill then moved to the House of Representatives, where it lacked a clear champion — at least within the prevailing political party. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, has advocated for the bill in the House, but as a Democrat has not yet been able to pull the right strings.
That left Davis trying to run the football as best as he could in the House, making a case for the bill with Republicans leaders on the House side.
Queen commended Davis for his work fielding the bill.
Meanwhile, Rep. Michell Presnell, R-Burnsville, has been not exactly been an ally of the merger, at least in its current form. Presnell does not represent Waynesville nor Lake Junaluska, but does represent other parts of Haywood County. She has said she would support the merger if a formal election were held showing it has majority support among residents of Lake Junaluska.
Lake Junaluska leaders and the town of Waynesville happily agreed to that stipulation, and the logjam appeared to be broken. Last week, as the bill headed to a vote in the House finance committee, it appeared it would pass with the caveat that a formal referendum on the merger had to be held.
But when the House finance committee convened, the previously brokered deal didn’t come to fruition for reasons unknown.
“I was looking for that answer myself,” Davis said.
The next House finance committee meeting is Tuesday, July 9, when the bill may or may not come up again.