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Lake Junaluska winnows options as merger window narrows

Lake Junaluskans got their first glimpse this weekend at what it would take for the community to become its own town.

Incorporating as its own town comes with a host of regulatory, political and logistical hurdles. A task force studying the future course of Lake Junaluska residential neighborhoods heard a report on the ins-and-out of forming their own town at a public meeting Jan. 26.

The meeting was focused on whether incorporating as its own town should remain on the options on the table, but questions from those in the audience steered the discussion to the other leading option: being absorbed by the town of Waynesville.

While most of the 100 or so people at the meeting last weekend simply sat and listened, a handful of property owners questioned whether the process was moving too fast and who would get a say in what happens to Lake Junaluska.

The Lake Junaluska Task Force has spent the last nine months looking into options for the lake’s future, which include merging with Waynesville, incorporating or staying as it is.

Property owner Don Bishop voiced his concern that the task force has dedicated most of its time to analyzing a possible merger with Waynesville and not enough hours considering the possibility of incorporation.

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“It does seem on the outside that we are on the fast-track to annexation,” Bishop said.

Lake Junaluska has until early March to decide whether it wants to merge with Waynesville. That’s the deadline for introducing a bill in the state legislature. There won’t be another window for two years.

If Lake Junaluska wants to incorporate, it has until November 2014 to decide and draft legislation asking the N.C. General Assembly to recognize it as a town.

Because of the strict deadline associated with merger, the task force did have to focus on ruling that option in or out first.

“We are working toward that because we have that window,” said Buddy Young, a member of the task force and public works director for Lake Junaluska.

Before endorsing a merger, the proposal must survive scrutiny from at least five entities — the task force, the Lake Junaluska Community Council, the Lake Junaluska Assembly board of directors, Waynesville’s Board of Alderman and a survey of property owners — before heading to the General Assembly. At any time, one of these groups could put the brakes on, Young said.

But, Bishop reasoned that property owners will need as much information about both incorporation and the merger before they can pick which they prefer.

Without adequate information about both, “How can we make a decision about those two options?” Bishop asked.

Several property owners were also concerned that their opinion would not count because they are not full-time residents. In the event of incorporation, a formal election would be held on the issue. But only Lake Junaluska property owners who are registered to vote in the county could participate — in other words, those who live here year-round.

An informal survey being conducted by the task force in mid-February will go to all property owners, however, giving them a chance to weigh in the three options — merger, incorporation or nothing.

“We are trying to be inclusive of everyone,” said Ron Clauser, a Lake Junaluska resident and chairman of the task force.

One property owner suggested that the task force hire a professional to help with the mail survey in order to garner a high rate of response.

“Mail surveys are often very poorly done,” said resident Tom Hood.

The logistical challenges of a forming its own town could make that option a non-starter.

There must be at a minimum number of residents per square mile. Within three years of becoming a town, it must offer at minimum four of the following services: police, fire, trash, water, street lighting, street construction, zoning and street maintenance. And the services must be provided at a “reasonable rate.”

For Lake Junaluska, that is the easy part though. The residential community of around 800 homes has a large enough population that is already offers at least four of the services (but would plan to add more) and charges a reasonable rate.

Should it decide that it wants to incorporate, the real trick will be gathering enough support. Because Waynesville’s town limits are less than a mile from Lake Junaluska, Waynesville has to give its blessing by a three-fifths supermajority of the town board.

Regardless of which option emerges on top, February will prove a critical month for the process.

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