Lake Junaluska, Waynesville tire of uphill merger battle

haywoodLeaders of Lake Junaluska and the town of Waynesville are weighing whether to try once again to push a merger bill through the General Assembly next year, or whether they are better off staying outside the political arena for a while.

“We each have to decide collectively whether to pursue annexation again in the short session,” said Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal.

To be clear, both the town and the lake are still for it.

“The needs of Lake Junaluska have not changed nor have the benefits to the town of Waynesville changed,” Onieal said.

The Waynesville town board still unanimously supports the merger in principle, including one new town board member who will take office next month following the town election.

Lake Junaluska homeowners still support it, too.

“We continue to decisively support the issue of annexation. Looking at the benefits and where we want our community to be five, 10, 20 years from now — this is the course of action that will allow us to do that,” said Ed LaFontaine, head of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Organization.

But simply put, trying again could be pointless unless the cast of characters in Raleigh changes.

The merger has been stymied for three years in a row. It seems destined to play out that way yet again unless there’s a game-changer at the ballot box next fall.

The merger has been repeatedly blocked by N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville. 

Presnell initially worked behind the scenes to scuttle the merger bill from being approved. Her subversive role working against the merger was strongly suspected but difficult to prove beyond innuendo from other General Assembly political insiders.

Her opposition became apparent this year, however. Twice the merger bill was on the eve of passage when Presnell spoke out against it in front of witnesses, bending the ear of the House leader both times to pull it. 

“She walked right up to the speaker and asked him to pull the bill,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, recounting what went down at the end of the last legislative session. “People are extremely frustrated that yet again it has been obstructed, and they wonder — will it ever come to pass? All I can tell them is you never give up.”

The merger bill would have merely granted the town and Lake Junaluska permission to hold a formal election on the merger issue. The merger would occur only if residents of both the lake and the town approved it. 

LaFontaine said the community is at a loss to understand why a bill giving the community the right to self-determination was blocked.

“Clearly the expectation was we would be supported in finding a democratically determined outcome,” LaFontaine said. “Most of us operate in some kind of assumption that decisions are made through an understandable process. In this case we don’t really know what went on behind the scenes that led to the bill not being allowed to be voted on.”

 

Next steps

Both the town and the lake have been in operational holding patterns to various degrees over the past three years. Both held staff positions open or postponed equipment purchases assuming a merger was just around the corner and would bring a consolidation of resources.

The holding pattern has become financially unsustainable for Lake Junaluska. The lake doesn’t currently collect enough in homeowner fees to adequately cover the cost of the residential services being provided, from trash pick-up to street repairs.

Nor does it charge enough for water and sewer to begin tackling needed water and sewer line upgrades.

If it merged with Waynesville, residents would become town taxpayers, and in exchange the town would provide those things.

But if the lake remains a stand-alone community, there seems to be no choice other than to raise homeowner fees, water and sewer rates and fire assessment.

“It is more expensive to provide those things now than it was 10 years ago,” Lafontaine said.

Next year, Lake Junaluska leaders will have to decide whether to keep waiting or bite the bullet and proceed as if the merger won’t happen — which would mean raising fees.

“We definitely need to be planning as if annexation is not going to take place,” said Jack Ewing, director of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. 

Ewing said frank dialogue will take place next year leading up to a decision on fee and rate increases.

“We want our community to understand the condition of our community and what it is going to cost us as a community to be at a standard that we would all like it to be,” Ewing said.

The decision won’t be made until fall, with any fee adjustments going into effect starting in 2017.

“We are disappointed in the General Assembly not bringing this to a vote,” LaFontaine said. “It is very disappointing in the sense we remain in limbo.”

Waynesville and Lake Junaluska leaders are doubly frustrated that Presnell does not even represent Lake Junaluska or Waynesville. Those geographic areas are in Queen’s legislative district.

“It is a shame that even in spite of factual information to the contrary, Ms. Presnell chooses to disseminate patently false information in order to defeat a bill, in a district in which she has no constituents, a local bill which has the support of a majority of residents impacted, of the elected representatives of that district, and of every elected official in Haywood County,” Onieal said.

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