The 765-home residential community with century-old roots as a summer Methodist retreat has spent the past 10 months studying the question: should it merge with Waynesville or remain on its own?
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Three votes by three official boards unfolded over the first week of March. The results of a property owners survey were also unveiled.
The verdict in favor of merging with Waynesville was certainly expected. But the results are far more decisive than anyone guessed.
The decision was nearly unanimous among the various boards and councils representing facets of Lake Junaluska — from the residential neighborhoods to the conference and retreat center operations. Only one person out of 45 across all three entities voted against merging with Waynesville.
A survey taken of homeowners was not as overwhelming, but was definitive nonetheless. Nearly two-thirds of respondents favored merging with Waynesville.
It was heartening that the majority of residents arrived at the same decision as the official decision-making bodies, said Jack Ewing, the CEO of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. But likewise, he wishes it could have been more.
“I had hoped that with the thorough and transparent process almost everyone would come to a common conclusion,” Ewing said. “While 65 percent of respondents expressing support for one option is very good, I must admit, I was dreaming for unanimity.”
Merging the 765-home community with Waynesville is seen as the safe, logical and financially sound course compared to the other two options. On its own, Lake Junaluska doesn’t have the economies of scale or critical mass to provide services and take care of its infrastructure. It would limp along, overextended and unsustainable, according to those in favor of merging.
Residents should brace for a “financial tsunami” if left to their own devices to pay for an estimated $10 million in infrastructure repairs needed at the Lake, according to Oscar Dowdle, a member of the Junaluska Community Council.
Indeed, if money were no object, the outcome might have been quite different, at least for David Baker, also a member of the Junaluska Community Council who voted for the merger.
In his heart, he wanted to stay independent, he said.
“But then I got the financial projections,” Baker said. “Finances became part of the realism with which I think we are all dealing. I can’t do more. That is something you don’t like to talk about out in public. But that to me is being responsible at this point in the game.”
Junaluska property owners would have to shoulder big-ticket repairs to streets, water and sewer lines among a relatively small population under a go-it-alone course.
It would be cheaper to pony up town property taxes and let the town then take care of it. The town of Waynesville would also come out ahead in the long run. It would be a break-even proposition for the town at first as the infrastructure repairs were tackled, but within 10 years, the town would come out ahead — collecting more in taxes than it ultimately cost to provide services to the community.
Not all Junaluska homeowners are in agreement. Opponents of a Waynesville merger made an 11th-hour rally in recent weeks, urging the decision to be postponed. They decried the loss of autonomy and an erosion of their identity as likely fallout from a merger.
“Here in our 100th anniversary, we need to look back at our heritage and who we have been and who we can be,” said Chris Derrick, a Junaluska homeowner and an attorney. “I think annexation with the town of Waynesville will change everything. Annexation is irreversible. We will be stuck with this decision. It is not like a marriage that you can get a divorce from.”
Lake Junaluska was founded a century ago as a summer retreat for the Methodist Church, a place of revival and Christian gatherings. The 1,200-acre campus became a magnet for affluent families of Methodist preachers who built homes on the grounds — a lineage that still runs deep through Junaluska neighborhoods today.
Several speakers pleaded with decision-making boards over the past week to slow down and allow for more reflection.
Too many people still have emotional reservations, and that could lead to a rift in what has historically been a tight-knit community, said Jack King, a long-time Junaluska resident.
“Part of what we are dealing with really is grief, grief that something is dying we have lived with so long. We have got to deal with the anger and hurt and disappointment — and hopes and dreams that maybe won’t occur now,” he said.
There were nearly a dozen public meetings leading up to last week’s votes, each with ample time for audience questions. Reams of reports, mounds of studies, piles of transcripts, hours of audio and sundry other documents were online for those interested in following along.
But Paul Starnes, an opponent to the merger, said the average residents just haven’t been able to digest all the information at the same pace as the task force or the leadership bodies charged with analyzing the choices.
“We should do all in our power to make sure it is the right decision. And it may be the right decision, I am still turning things over in my mind,” Starnes said.
While the debate playing out among neighbors in recent months has been civil and respectful despite the deeply emotional issue, feelings have still been hurt. And those against a merger now feel like they have been left behind.
That motivated the Lake Junaluska Board of Directors to call for a formal reconciliation process. One option was to bring in trained mediators or counselors to lead a community-scale healing process.
“We need to move forward in a Christian way and find ways to bring about reconciliation,” said Bishop Larry Goodpasture, a member of the board of directors.
Some, however, accused the task force and Junaluska leadership of steering the community toward a foregone conclusion.
“I think there is the feeling the train is on the track. That has been sort of the perception, that a decision was made long ago and it is just a matter of keeping the train running on the track,” said Starnes.
Time was of the essence, however. The merger must be approved by the N.C. General Assembly — but the window to introduce a state bill closes in mid-March. It would not come back around for two more years.
That said, it would be wrong to make a hasty decision simply to meet that deadline, agreed Ewing, the CEO of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
“One question that has been asked often is why can’t we wait. We can, we absolutely can,” Ewing said. “The reality is we have choice related to timing.”
By the same token, if a merger is the best path and one the community wants to take, it makes sense to pursue it now when the political stars seem to be aligned. There’s a good chance of getting the bill passed by state lawmakers right now. Waynesville town aldermen — another lynchpin in consecrating a merger — are also supportive at present. That may or may not be the case in the future.
Some Junaluska residents supporting a merger admitted to an ulterior motive: doing what they thought was best for the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
Paul Young, an audience member who spoke up at a Junaluska Community Council meeting, cautioned leaders that there was more at stake than the wishes of property owners.
“They have a responsibility to property owners but also the conference and retreat center, and the mission of this place all of us love,” Young said. “Lake Junaluska did not come into being with the mission of serving we property owners. I am for annexation for getting the albatross of 100-year-old infrastructure off our backs so Lake Junaluska can get back to their mission.”