Opponents in the state legislature have indicated they will back down and give the merger their blessing if a formal election is held showing majority support among Junaluska homeowners.
“If the legislature wants us to do a referendum, we’ll do a referendum,” said Buddy Young, public works director for the 765-home Lake Junaluska residential community.
Nearly two-thirds of property owners support a merger, based on the results of a comprehensive survey conducted by mail in March.
“I feel confident the referendum would mirror the work that has already been done,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who has been an advocate for the merger bill.
The merger was initially going to take effect this fall. That would be delayed, however, in order to hold a formal vote first. The earliest an election could be held is November, pushing back the effective date of a merger until spring or summer should the referendum pass.
Davis said a referendum would make the merger “palatable” to those still holding out. He has been instrumental in getting the bill this far, first ushering it to passage in the Senate and then lobbying for it in the House of Representatives.
But for now, its fate is in limbo. It must clear the House finance committee before it can head to the full House for a vote. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking before the legislature adjourns for the year.
There seem to be two likely possibilities at this political juncture — and both entail Junaluska residents heading to the polling booth.
One option is the merger bill passes the House, but with an amendment stipulating that it must first pass muster in a ballot referendum before taking effect.
The other option is simply delaying a vote in the House until next year. In that case, Davis recommends Lake Junaluska pre-emptively hold a referendum anyway so they’ll be armed and ready to go come next year.
Lake Junaluska leaders are, in fact, already armed with evidence that the majority of property owners support a merger.
Nearly two-thirds of property owners who responded to a mail survey conducted in March supported a merger.
The participation rate was high: of 811 surveys sent out, 492 came back. The 60 percent return rate was more than the national voter turnout in last year’s presidential election. Of those who responded, 65 percent supported a merger.
Given the survey results, Lake Junaluska leaders aren’t shying away from the prospect of an official vote to gauge — and reaffirm — the support of homeowners for a merger.
“We would gladly do that,” said Jack Ewing, the CEO of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. “There would be no hesitancy to have a referendum if that’s what the General Assembly wanted us to do.”
“If this is what the people in Raleigh think is warranted, that is fine with us. We’d be glad to,” echoed Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.
And last but not least, “If they think a referendum is the gold standard we are perfectly happy with that,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville. “The vast majority of residents are in favor of this scenario.”
That begs the question: why didn’t Lake Junaluska just hold a formal referendum in the first place?
In this case, a survey was actually seen as a better litmus test. In a formal ballot measure, only local residents registered to vote under a Lake Junaluska address could participate in the election. The survey, on the other hand, was sent to every property owner — even part-timers who merely have vacation homes at the lake.
“I think the town and Lake Junaluska went overboard trying to canvas all those people,” Davis said. “I think they are to be commended for the approach they took.”
More than half the property owners at Lake Junaluska claim a full-time residence elsewhere and wouldn’t be able to vote in a formal election.
“It seemed a survey would be the fairest to include everyone,” Ewing said.
The merger could see an even wider margin of support in a formal referendum than it did in the survey. Those who live at Lake Junaluska year-round seem to support the merger in greater numbers. Based on those who spoke up at public meetings on the issue, opponents to the merger predominantly lived elsewhere, while the supporters were predominantly permanent residents of Lake Junaluska.
Holding a special referendum would cost several thousand dollars, according to Robert Inman, director of the Haywood County Board of Elections. If a referendum must be held, leaders of Lake Junaluska and the town of Waynesville have said they want to hold it in November.
Inman said he needs to know fairly soon in order to pull off a referendum by then. There are the basic steps of printing ballots, setting up voting booth locations and scheduling an early voting period.
But Inman also needs to figure out who would be eligible to vote in the election — namely those registered to vote at an address inside the proposed merger area.