Lake Junaluska navigates choppy political waters
Ron Clauser never saw himself as a lobbyist. He’s an accountant by trade, a world where logic and rationale rule the day. The same could be said of Ed LaFountaine, a career military man and retired major general in the airforce.
But Clauser and LaFountaine may soon find themselves evicted from their cocoon of civility at Lake Junaluska and thrown into the new terrain of state politics. The task at hand: convincing state legislators in Raleigh that the majority of property owners in their Methodist community indeed want to be absorbed into Waynesville’s town limits.
A bill to that effect had been sent to Raleigh earlier this year but it was shipwrecked by political maneuvering.
“It is unfortunate that a minority in the community has taken a contrary position and stopped this particular effort,” said LaFountaine. “It was disappointing because the effort had the support of the community but we saw a few individuals engineer a change in that through 12th hour lobbying.”
Proponents of the merger with Waynesville say they were blind-sided by the bill’s derailment. While not all 800 property owners at Lake Junaluska had agreed unanimously, the conclusion to merge with Waynesville was a collective one, arrived at after nearly a year of studies, reports, analysis, public meetings, public hearings — backed by a survey and unanimous votes of two elected homeowners boards.
“We tried very hard to achieve transparency,” Clauser said. “Yet when it got to Raleigh, there wasn’t much transparency. The opponents are getting an upper hand and we don’t know how or why. I think we are disappointed in the political process.”
Clauser admitted to being naïve when it comes to inner political workings, but never suspected a handful of opponents would work subversively to stop what the majority of the community wanted.
But who’s to say that’s what the majority wanted, asked Walt Logan, a part-time Lake Junaluska property owner who lives in Florida. Logan believes the process was flawed — like most of the meetings being held over the winter or the mail-in survey be structured as a sliding scale.
But most importantly, Logan believes the community was led astray by those at the helm, steered toward a forgone, preferred conclusion with a false bill of goods.
After the merger bill has fizzled this year in the General Assembly, the town of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska had three choices: forget the merger, pick back up with the special bill next year in the hopes of getting it passed, or bite the bullet and go through the official annexation process.
Waynesville leaders aren’t eager to go through the official annexation process. They fear it will inaccurately portray the town as aggressively trying to gobble up Lake Junaluska — when in fact Lake Junaluska asked to be annexed, said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.
Logan questioned what they have to fear, however.
“That begs the question: if the vast majority of people want this, then why not go through the statutory annexation process?” Logan said.
But Waynesville leaders would rather Lake Junaluska give the political process another shot next year before going for the nuclear option of a forced annexation — a politically-charged and technically-arduous process.
Brown said the chief strategy now should be for the homeowners who support annexation to “carry the water.”
“It is time for those people to step forward,” Brown said.
Brown made more than half a dozen trips to Raleigh to speak on behalf of the bill along with other town and Lake Junaluska officials. But legislators needed to be hearing from property owners.
“We probably should have had a different game plan,” Brown said.
Clauser and LaFountaine thought there was plenty of evidence that a merger was what property owners wanted.
“There seems to be some perspective in Raleigh that property owners haven’t spoken. In reality they have,” LaFountaine said.
The Lake Junaluska Community Council and the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Association both voted unanimously in support of merging. There was also a mail-in survey of all property owners, with 60 percent favoring a merger.
But the integrity of the survey has been maligned by opponents. And the community council and property owner’s board has been disparaged as an illegitimate indicator of residential sentiment.
The bill has already passed the N.C. Senate, but faced a series obstacles in the N.C. House over the past two months — some philosophical and others purely political. Last week, leaders with the town of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska pulled the bill since the chances seemed slim of it being passed anyway.
Several weeks ago, it seemed proponents of the merger had placated hold-outs in the legislature. They agreed to hold an official vote of Lake Junaluska residents to the merger had majority support.
But that compromise somehow fell by the wayside.
The lake and the town would still like to hold the vote, as it would give them ammunition when they push for the bill again next year. But legally, they can’t simply declare an election.
Only the legislature could call for such an election unless it was held under the guise of a forced annexation process.