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Lake Junaluska merger still stuck on a roller coaster in Raleigh

fr lakeJThe merger of Lake Junaluska with the town of Waynesville cleared a critical milestone in the N.C. General Assembly last week and finally seemed headed for passage, but was sidelined again at the 11th hour.

A merger of the Lake Junaluska community with Waynesville has been in limbo for three years now. While supported by the majority of lake residents and town leaders, the merger needs the blessing of the state legislature.

Each year, the merger has passed easily in the Senate but been stymied in the House — due in part to conservative distaste for anything that smells of annexation and in part to behind-the-scenes political flexing and dealing.

This year, the bill broke through the House logjam — namely clearing the key House finance committee where it had been snagged the past two years. 

It was then supposed to head to the House floor for a vote this week, but Monday evening, the bill was taken off the vote calendar and shunted back into committee — this time the House rules committee.

“At this time it is unknown why the bill was removed from the calendar,” said Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal.

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There may be a benign technical question or scheduling issue. Or it could have been parked there as a bargaining chip — held hostage in committee so to speak — as leverage for a bill another legislator wants passed.

An entourage of merger supporters from the town and Lake Junaluska spent two days in Raleigh speaking in support of the bill — as did three merger opponents. It’s a drill they now know well, having made at least a dozen similar trips downstate over the three year process.

They were optimistic after it passed the committee and was on the docket for a House vote.

“Unless there are some backroom machinations it should pass,” Ed Lafontaine, head of the Lake Junaluska Property Owners Association, said Monday. “As a general rule of operations once it gets out of committee it’s kind of pro forma.”

But by sunset Monday night, the merger was mysteriously pulled from the queue of bills waiting for a House vote and parked in the rules committee. LaFontaine said the turn of events was “certainly a surprise.”

Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said there is likely no cause for alarm, predicting the bill’s detour to House Rules would be minor and short-lived.

“As far as I know it was going to be fine on the floor,” said Queen, who supports the merger bill. “Usually, if something goes to rules committee, it comes right back out.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, had actively opposed the Lake Junaluska merger the past two years, but she has been silent, at least publicly, this go-around. She did not return a call before press time Tuesday.

The bill working its way through the legislature this year included a caveat intended to placate those who saw the merger as tantamount to forced annexation. The merger would be contingent on a majority of voters in both Lake Junaluska and the town of Waynesville approving the merger in a special election this November, timed to coincide with Waynesville’s town board elections.

Earlier this week those on both sides of the merger were already looking toward the November vote. Both plan to have education campaigns to get their side out.

“There will be efforts from both sides to try to educate the electorate, so to speak,” said John Davis, a lake homeowner who opposes merging with Waynesville. “There is a voice of dissent out there.”

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