The merger was derailed in the state legislature this year — due partly to partisan politics, partly to bureaucratic technicalities and partly to opposition waged by a small number of residents against it.
Now, property owners in support of a merger are redoubling efforts to make their case again when the state legislature reconvenes in March or April.
The key to the renewed appeal: a petition signed by as many of Lake Junaluska’s property owners and registered voters as possible.
“While it is not a balloted vote, this is probably the most refined thing we can do,” said Ed LaFontaine, president of the Lake Junaluska Assembly Property Owners Organization.
The petition will be so striking — revealing a dramatic majority in favor of the merger — that it will be impossible to refute, LaFontaine said.
“What they will be able to definitely see is the significant and disproportionate balance between those that favor annexation and those that do not,” LaFontaine said. “I think that seesaw is very significant.”
Hopefully, it will convince state legislators who were previously hesitant, LaFontaine said.
A bill endorsing the merger sailed through the N.C. Senate back in the spring, with N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, carrying the torch.
But in the House, some Republican legislators had misgivings, fueled by lobbying efforts of property owners who are against the merger. The opponents claimed the merger was being rammed through Raleigh and was an end-run around the wishes of many property owners.
Those organizing the petition drive hope to show otherwise.
An appeal for petition signatures went out about three weeks ago by mail. The next phase will be calling or visiting those in person who don’t reply initially.
“A canvas initiative will try to ensure contact with 100 percent of all individuals,” LaFontaine said.
The job is a sizeable one.
There are 811 property owners and around 650 registered voters at Lake Junaluska to reach out to.
There is obviously some overlap — those who are both property owners and registered voters — but there are hundreds of property owners who aren’t voters and some voters who aren’t property owners.
So there will be two separate petitions: one for property owners and one for registered voters, allowing for two separate litmus tests of public sentiment.
The Lake Junaluska Assembly Property Owner’s Organization is organizing the petition effort.
LaFontaine said he hoped those who are against the merger will accept the results of the petition as valid and stop trying to block it.
Still, even with the new ammunition of a survey, it won’t be a slam dunk to get it passed in Raleigh.
“There is still a whole slate of complexities in the legislative process that could still stymie it,” LaFontaine said.
But most are out of their control.
“This was the only positive thing we had to do,” LaFontaine said.
In some ways, the petition is a do-over of a survey that’s already been done, but wasn’t good enough in critics’ eyes. The mail-in survey of property owners was part of a year-long, comprehensive study of Lake Junaluska’s options.
The survey of property owners in February showed 65 percent in favor of merging, 24 percent against, and 11 percent undecided.
The survey was shot full of holes by opponents, however, in an attempt to discredit the results.
“Some people called into question the issue of the survey — that it wasn’t scientifically done, that it didn’t truly capture the community, that there was no way of validating who was responding,” LaFontaine said.
Even the integrity of those who tabulated the survey responses “was impugned,” LaFontaine said.
The new petition aims to fix all those shortcomings.
A major criticism of the survey was the various shades of gray — it wasn’t a straight “yes or no” vote. The survey listed three different paths for Lake Junaluska — merge with Waynesville, remain as a homeowner’s association or form their own town. Respondents could rank their support or disapproval for each of the three options on a scale of 1 to 5.
A petition is far more black and white, LaFontaine said.
He also hopes for a higher participation rate on the petition than the survey.
The petition had a 60 percent response rate, which is higher than the voter turnout in most elections. But it was still criticized for not having enough critical mass to truly gauge public sentiment.
LaFontaine cautioned that it would be impossible to get 100 percent of property owners to sign. Some properties are held by a trust or a family estate. So simply figuring out who to present the petition to in some cases is a challenge.
It is likewise impossible to get 100 percent of registered voters. The list of registered voters includes those who have either died or moved unbeknownst to the county election office.
Some critics of the merger said the only true test would be a formal and certified election at the polls. Lake Junaluska has no power to call such an election, however, since it isn’t a government body.
Besides, more than half of the 765 homes at Lake Junaluska are vacation homes, and thus the property owners are not registered voters locally and wouldn’t be able to participate in an election.
The petition of registered voters will attempt to show what such an election would look like, however.
Meanwhile, the property owner petition would capture the full spectrum of views with second-home owners included.
In the property owner petition, only one signatory per property is allowed to sign even if the property is owned jointly by more than one person, such as a married couple. Likewise, people who own more than one piece of property only get to sign once, not once for each piece of property they own at the lake.
There are 1,050 parcels of property at Lake Junaluska but only 811 eligible signatories in the property owner petition.
Why the merger talk?
The merger of Lake Junaluska with the town of Waynesville would rescue the financially-burdened neighborhoods — about 765 residential homes — that ring the grounds of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
The community faces mounting street, water and sewer line repairs. If it becomes part of Waynesville, residents would pay town taxes but be rid of the headache of crumbling infrastructure.
But the century-old community, with roots as a summer retreat for affluent Methodists, would lose its autonomy by joining Waynesville.
While Lake Junaluska isn’t a bona fide town, its services are on par with one — it has a security force, trash pick up, yard waste removal, street maintenance, public recreation, water and sewer services.
The cost of providing the services has grown. More problematic, however, are some $10 million in water and sewer line repairs facing the community over the next decade.
The Lake Junaluska Assembly Board of Trustees, the elected Lake Junaluska Community Council, the Lake Junaluska Assembly Property Owners Organization, the Lake Junaluska Future Options Task Force and the town board of Waynesville all voted unanimously or overwhelmingly in favor of the merger.