A bill will be introduced in the General Assembly this week, once again seeking the state’s blessing to make Lake Junaluska an official part of neighboring Waynesville.
It will be the third year in a row a Lake Junaluska merger has been floated in Raleigh. Despite widespread support among lake residents to merge with Waynesville, it was stymied by behind-the-scenes political forces.
This time, the bill calls for a formal vote to sanctify the merger — two votes, in fact. One would measure support among residents of the Lake Junaluska community, and one would measure whether Waynesville voters want to add the 860-home community that rings Lake Junaluska to their town limits.
“It will be contingent upon a referendum of the voters of Lake Junaluska and the majority of Waynesville residents,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who has once again agreed to champion the bill in the legislature.
The formal votes are intended to provide an added assurance and comfort level for anti-annexation holdouts in the General Assembly.
If the bill passes, the referendums would be held in conjunction with the Waynesville town board election this November. It is cheaper to piggyback on an existing election on the calendar. The legwork for an election, like programming voting machines and printing ballots, will be happening anyway.
But it could seem like an eternity for a community that’s been vigorously discussing and debating the issue for three years already.
“It is important that this be resolved in a way that people feel like they have been given an opportunity to ask questions and express their opinion and ultimately cast their vote,” said Jack Ewing, director of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “Our hope is we can discuss these questions in a civil manner we’ll all be proud of.”
An extensive series of community forums, information sessions, task force meetings, consultant studies and public hearings played out in 2012 and 2013, leading up to the first bill being introduced. More of the same will likely play out in the lead-up to the vote this fall, should the bill make it through Raleigh.
“We anticipate the support for this will be sustained. But we also want to make certain that questions raised over the course of these last two years will be given appropriate attention and that people are making their decision based on a solid set of facts and not hearsay,” said Ewing.
But John Davis, a property owner who is against a merger, fears the longer the debate drags on the more deleterious it is for the community.
“Let’s not embarrass ourselves, damage our reputation or further divide this community by pursing a legislative route,” Davis said.
Davis admits those opposed to a merger would have their work cut out to reverse the majority view — especially in light of what he sees as a pro-annexation bias bordering on propaganda by the leadership and administration of both the conference center and residential community.
“I believe the people of Lake Junaluska want, and expect, the information they’re given to be unbiased,” Davis said.
Those who support merging with Waynesville say it is vital from an economic perspective. Homeowner dues can no longer keep pace with the cost of meeting the community’s needs — particularly the looming price tag of major water, sewer and street repairs.
“It is a win-win situation for a community that has historically been very closely aligned with Waynesville,” said Ed LaFountaine, the president of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Organization. “The effort continues to be important for our community.”
Walt Logan, a second-home owner at Lake Junaluska who is against annexation, disagrees that the lake needs rescuing.
“The whole premise that there is a calamity coming with the sewer pipes and the water lines is a false premise,” Logan said.
While there’s never been a formal vote, Lake Junaluska has twice gauged public sentiment for a merger. Two years ago, a mail–in survey went to every property owner and registered voter at the lake. And last year, a petition drive was held.
Both showed overwhelming support by roughly two-thirds of registered voters.
LaFountaine thinks a referendum will be even more telling.
While two-thirds of registered voters signed on at last year’s petition drive, that doesn’t necessarily mean the remaining third are against a merger, he said.
Some didn’t sign because they don’t really care, or they simply didn’t get around to it — and in an election, they probably won’t turn out to vote one way or the other, leaving even fewer in the official “no” column.
Lake Junaluska has around 860 homes, but many are vacation homes, second homes or seasonal rentals. Only bona fide registered voters who live at Lake Junaluska would be able to vote in a formal election. Voter rolls show around 620 registered voters at the lake.
Opponents of a merger are decrying the tactics of special legislation in Raleigh. State law spells out statutory steps an annexation is supposed to follow. To sidestep that process with a special bill circumvents its whole intention, opponents claim.
“I always thought it was a little bit distasteful to try to do something that is different than what a statute calls for,” said Davis, a lake resident against annexation.
But there’s a reason Lake Junaluska and Waynesville can’t follow the annexation rules as written.
“The reality is this is a unique animal and cannot go through the usual channels of annexation, so it takes something special like this to do it,” Sen. Jim Davis said.
Under the statutory criteria, an area being annexed is supposed to adjoin the town limits. But roughly a quarter-mile lies between the edge of Waynesville’s town limits and the edge of Lake Junaluska’s closest neighborhood.
“It would not qualify under the current statute because we don’t share a contiguous border,” said Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal.
Even if the town annexed a narrow bridge of property connecting its town limits with Lake Junaluska’s, it still wouldn’t be good enough.
The statute says the annexed area must share a common border with the town that’s equal to at least one-eighth of the annexed area’s perimeter.
“Well then, maybe it shouldn’t be annexed if it doesn’t qualify,” Logan said. “That’s a safeguard so you don’t have non-contiguous annexation. That’s a protection the bill provides and they want to do an end-run around it.”
Chances are good
N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, who once again agreed to introduce the bill on Lake Junaluska and Waynesville’s behalf, believes it will go through this time. The litmus test of a formal election will hopefully assuage those who had reservations.
“It is a higher hurdle with this legislation requiring a referendum of both Lake Junaluska and Waynesville,” Davis said.
Waynesville leaders support the merger, but they aren’t driving it.
“Our position has always been that we were ready to stand beside Lake Junaluska with whatever they wanted to do,” said Onieal.
It is rare — and perhaps the first time ever — that a town or city has been required to hold a vote of its current residents on whether they want to bring a new area into the town limits.
“This is completely unprecedented,” Onieal said.
Davis previously had no trouble getting the bill passed in the Senate. But when it moved to the House for ratification, it languished in committee for political reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
The key committee whose gates the bill must pass through in the House has a new chairman now, and that is expected to make a difference.
“The landscape is a little bit different than before,” Onieal said.