Lake Junaluska and Waynesville leaders caution that no decision has been made yet, however. They are merely getting their ducks in a row to introduce a bill, should that be the route both communities decide to take.
It’s a little more rushed than leaders of either would like. But, there’s a mid-March deadline for bills of this nature to be introduced in the N.C. General Assembly if they stand a chance of being heard in the next two years. Otherwise, they will have to wait until 2015 to come up.
“I did not know it was going to move this quickly,” said Jack Ewing, CEO of Lake Junaluska Assembly. “It is faster than I would have wanted, but if we are going to do this in the next two years, this is the window we have.”
“It would be to our benefit to be prepared for this session,” agreed Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal.
Leaders at both the lake and town emphasized that no final decision has been made, and while they are being proactive in drawing up a bill, the legislation will only appear on the General Assembly’s calendar if both parties agree to a merger.
Ewing said Lake Junaluska won’t move forward with the bill unless they are absolutely certain it is the right direction. Otherwise, they’ll just have to wait two years.
Between now and decision time in March, however, the town and Lake Junaluska have commissioned a $60,000 study from an outside consultant and engineering firm to analyze the pros and cons of a merger.
“I don’t wants us to feel forced into doing this. I want us to do everything we can to have good information,” Ewing said.
Likewise, he doesn’t want residents of Lake Junaluska to feel passed over in the process.
“Even though we say it is moving quickly, I do not want anyone to feel like this was railroaded,” Ewing said.
Lake Junaluska has indeed bent over backwards to make the process open and transparent. And they aren’t merely paying lip service to those buzz words. Every task force meeting is announced and open to the public. Meetings are recorded, and minutes put online. The same web site makes available every official report, study or opinion letter from the public on the issue.
“We are more transparent than anything you will probably ever see. We don’t want anyone to say ‘Why didn’t we know about that?’” Ewing said.
Who will decide
Whether to in fact pull the trigger on a bill in Raleigh will ultimately be up to the Waynesville town board and the Lake Junaluska Assembly board of directors, which oversees the religious conference and retreat center at Lake Junaluska’s core. A vote from those two entities on whether to formally request a bill would be made in March.
The Lake Junaluska Assembly board of directors won’t make a decision in a vacuum — far from it. A mail survey of Lake Junaluska’s 803 property owners — who would suddenly find themselves taxpaying residents of Waynesville — will be conducted sometime in February to gauge public sentiment about becoming part of the town.
“The survey is a very important process for us, to have a sense of the understanding of the community about the process and how they feel about it,” Ewing said.
Equally important is the input of a specially appointed task force that’s been studying a merger since the summer, which will also formally weigh in.
And last, but hardly least, is the Junaluska Community Council, a board of directors elected by property owners to address residential issues facing the community, akin to a property owners’ association.
“If the Community Council doesn’t bring a recommendation in support of the bill, it won’t happen. The board won’t act independently of the community council,” Ewing said.
Failure to curry majority support from residents and the Junaluska Community Council could be a deal killer for any bill in Raleigh. The new conservative leaning legislature has become increasingly gun shy of annexation and would want the political cover of community support before backing a bill to bring that many residents into the town limits.
“I wouldn’t call it perfunctory, but it is an important legal step,” Ewing said.
Given the sheer number of players at the table — plus the weightiness of a decision that will irreversibly set the course for Lake Juanluska’s future — the process has been surprisingly amicable.
“It is about what is in the best interest of Lake Junaluska and its residents for the next 100 years,” Ewing said.
One challenge, however, has been the emotional side of the debate. While Lake Junaluska leaders have tried to stay focused on the analytical side, a faction of residents have lamented the loss of identity and autonomy should the community be absorbed by Waynesville.
But those steering the process hope that the independent study analyzing the effects of a merger with Waynesville will arm residents with data to make a rational decision.
“We have always approached this from the standpoint of we want as much information as possible and we want to educate the property owners to the same extent the task force is educated,” Ewing said.
Lake Junaluska is putting in $10,000 for the study, Waynesville is putting in $20,000 and a grant from the N.C. Rural Center is funding $30,000.
“Hopefully, when we have all the information on the table, the decision will be made easier at that point,” said Ron Clauser, chair of the task force and Junaluska Community Council.
The target completion date for the study, being carried out by Martin-McGill, is the end of January.
“Once we get that study back, then we will know if it’s feasible, and then we will know if Waynesville is interested,” said Buddy Young, a member of the task force. “The staff here and at Waynesville feel intuitively it would be a good fit but we want some hard data.”
While Lake Junaluska makes its decision — with a task force, survey of residents, community council and board of directors all weigh in — Waynesville leaders must do their own soul-searching. The town must decided whether they even want to absorb Lake Junaluska — an idea that has yet to be formally introduced to town residents.
In fact, state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he wouldn’t support a merger bill unless the Waynesville Board of Alderman unanimously votes to combine with Lake Junaluska.
Sen. Davis has plans to meet with Waynesville leaders soon to learn more about the deliberation process. He will not take any action unless he is asked to introduce a bill in the state Senate.
“This issue has a lot of work before it gets to me,” Sen. Davis said.
N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said he would also advocate for the merger of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska if that is what the two entities want. Rep. Queen or Davis would likely be the one to introduce the bill for consideration during the legislative session.
If it has the support of people locally, the bill will not face much opposition from the General Assembly, Rep. Queen predicted.
“I don’t think a local bill of this kind will be difficult to pass at all,” Queen said.
Although people involved in the merger talks have thrown around the term annexation, the merger of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska would not fall within the purview of the state’s annexation statute — making the process simpler. Under state law, annexation requires a vote of the affected citizens to pass with a 60 percent majority.
But Lake Junaluska and Waynesville would aim to side-step that more drawn out process and get special legislation approving the merger.
Why the merger talk?
Lake Junaluska looks and acts in many ways like a town, but it isn’t — it is merely a highly-functioning, tight-knit residential community. The roughly 800 homes in and around the lake are anchored by the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a Methodist establishment, although the neighborhoods around the lake have drifted from their origin as a religious community.
Facing the stark reality of deteriorating infrastructure, Lake Junaluska leaders broached Waynesville several months ago about the possibility of coming under the town’s fold, which could not only rescue Lake Junaluska’s antiquated sewer system but also offer economies of scale by being part of a larger town.
A task force was appointed to study three options to three: merge with Waynesville, become its own town or stay as it is.