They had to show definitively the majority of property owners supported it, but how? An official election — held at the polls with real ballots and tabulated by the county election office — is the accepted and democratic way to gauge sentiment. But election laws don’t allow the lake to just order up an election at will.
So proponents settled for the next best thing.
Two petitions were crafted: one for all property owners, including those who merely have second homes or vacation homes at the lake, and one only for year-round residents.
The one for year-round residents was intended to capture registered voters at the lake, theoretically mirroring the results of an official election.
Figuring out who is a registered voter at the lake proved problematic, however.
“There’s people buying homes. There’s people selling homes. There’s people that die,” said Ed LaFontaine, president of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Organization.
The starting place was obviously voter registration rolls on file with the Haywood County Board of Elections. But it was rife with names of people who weren’t actually registered voters.
“We identified 40 people off the bat we knew were dead,” said Buddy Young, Lake Junaluska public works director.
While voter rolls are purged of dead people monthly based on in-state death certificates, those who die in another state or simply move away can remain on the rolls for years.
A voter isn’t scrubbed from the roll until they go four federal election cycles without voting. Young even noticed his own son on the voter registration rolls, even though he had moved away more than a decade ago.
Since an accurate petition hinged on an accurate list of voters, the first step was cleaning up that master list. An ad-hoc team met regularly at the Lake J public works office, which doubled as the petition drive headquarters.
“We have a lot of people come into this office on a regular basis and say, ‘What can I do to move this thing forward?’ and we put them to work,” Young said. “We would sit around in the kitchen and go down the list and say, ‘Who knows this one? Who knows this one?’”
The team also cross-referenced water bills and called the landlords of rental houses to verify whether a voter on the rolls still lived at that particular household.
Names were only jettisoned from the master list if there was definitive proof the person had moved away or died. Otherwise, the name remained on, Young said.
In the end, the number of registered voters at the lake was pegged at 549 names, after discounting 150 who are dead or no longer live at the lake. Two-thirds of those signed the petition.
Petition #2: all together now
Meanwhile, the second petition designed to gauge support of property owners carried its own set of challenges.
While the starting number is more static — there are 816 individual property owners at the lake — those individuals change monthly as property is bought and sold.
There were other variables, as well. The petition allowed only one signer per household, for example. If a home is owned jointly by a couple, they couldn’t each sign it.
The one-signer-per-household rule was also enforced for properties owned by several members of an extended family, held by an estate or owned collectively by a church congregation.
“It would skew the number if we allowed everyone of them to sign,” LaFontaine said.
Likewise, property owners who own more than one house or parcel at the lake could sign only once — not once for each piece of property they own.
It’s estimated that half of the homes at Lake Junaluska are seasonal, which means the owners live somewhere else for part or most of the year, and that meant tracking them down wherever home was.
“It is always a work in progress,” Young said.
The results were nearly identical to registered voters. The petition team gathered signatures from two-thirds of property owners in support of annexation.