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Lake Junaluska forges go-it-alone path after abandoning merger with Waynesville

Lake Junaluska forges go-it-alone path after abandoning merger with Waynesville

After five years of trying to merge with the town of Waynesville, the Lake Junaluska community has given up and charted a new course for its future.

The residential community of 765 homes ringing Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center had pinned its future on a merger with Waynesville, but that’s now water under the dam.

“A decision was made that we have put enough energy into this and we have not been successful,” said Jack Ewing, executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly. “We realized our pursuit of annexation with the town of Waynesville wasn’t going to happen and have made a conscious decision to pursue a model of sustainability in the absence of annexation.”

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Lake Junaluska leaders spent five years trying to pull off a merger with Waynesville. They carried out methodical and costly studies. They went through exhaustive public input. They conducted surveys and petitions. And they lobbied their case before state lawmakers. 

It was all in vain, however.

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Lake Junaluska’s merger with the town of Waynesville hinged on approval by the N.C. General Assembly. Three bills were introduced over the years — in 2013, 2014 and 2015 — and they were all blocked, largely due to opposition from N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville.

Lake residents who spent years tirelessly advocating for the merger aren’t harboring resentment toward those who fought against it, however, Ewing said.

“They have not in any way attempted to show anger or animosity about it. We did our best. We gave it a shot. It didn’t work. It’s OK. Let’s move on,” Ewing said. “I think it is one of the greatest things about Lake Junaluska today.”

Ewing said there’s been no “I told you so” on either side. Those who were against the merger haven’t gloated over the community apparently being able to make it on its own. And those who were for a merger aren’t sitting on their hands and letting the community fail in order to prove a point.

“Here’s the reality at the moment, let’s make the best of it,” Ewing said of the resounding philosophy.

The large majority of residents supported a merger, according to surveys and petitions. Nonetheless, the minority who opposed it mounted a prolonged opposition campaign to block it at the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Those who supported the merger aren’t angry with those who engaged in an end-run of the process, said Jimmy Pennell, chair of the Junaluska Community Council.

“You can’t play the blame game,” Pennell said. “We are trying to bring the community together. We don’t like division.”

To that end, the rest of the nation could take a cue from Junaluska on how to engage in weighty philosophical debates without devolving into hostility — a culture that’s due in part to the lake’s historical roots as a Methodist community..

“We have a lot of retired pastors who live here and they have a lifetime of experience in negotiating and resolving disagreements peacefully,” said Alan Jackson, an elected member of the Junaluska Community Council.

While Jackson was for merging with Waynesville, he’s come to terms with the position to throw in the towel.

“They essentially made the decision it was a dead issue. And they’re right about that,” Jackson said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown had an uncanny knack for coming up with wedding analogies at each juncture of the merger plan.

When the idea was first postured, Waynesville and Lake Junaluska were merely courting. They eventually became engaged.

Brown equated the dual engineer studies to a prenuptial agreement. And the financial analysis — sizing up how much Waynesville would spend providing services to the community versus the property tax revenue it would get in return — was compared to a dowry.

But it fell apart at the final step, which Brown called the parental blessing from state lawmakers.

“To continue my marriage analogy, somebody stood up at the wedding and said ‘I object’ and the preacher wasn’t allowed to go forward,” Brown said last week. “We were standing at the altar, but I guess the bride’s mother didn’t like us.”

Brown said the town of Waynesville stood at ready to pursue annexation if Presnell was removed from the picture in November’s election.

“We thought an election might cure that,” Brown said.

While there had been little talk of the merger over the past year, most assumed it was just in a holding pattern, pending Presnell’s defeat or victory in November.

But it turns out Lake Junaluska had grown tired of waiting and in late 2015 had already resigned itself to chart a new path alone.

Even under the most ambitious and optimistic timeline, a merger wouldn’t have possible until summer 2018. A bill would have to get introduced and approved in 2017, a referendum of town residents and lake residents would have to be held to assert support, and the logistics of the merger executed.

Ewing said the community couldn’t remain in a holding pattern for that long and had already decided to move on.

Rekindling the engagement wouldn’t be a simple matter at this point.

“If we start over again, we would be starting over again,” Brown said.

The studies would be too dated, the public input would need to be repeated, and the analysis revisited. To say it’s off the table forever, however, would also be premature.

“Sure it could come back at some time in the future, but what we do know is this executive director, this community council and its public works director are not spending any time thinking about annexation,” Ewing said.

Brown said the town is fine with that decision, although he still believes the merger was a good idea.

“It was a win-win situation,” Brown said. “But there are any number of good ideas that have never been implemented.”

Brown said Waynesville and Lake Junaluska are still inextricably linked in spirit. Their symbiotic relationship and willingness to work hand-in-hand for the greater good of both communities will continue.

“We did that before and will do this afterwards,” Brown said.

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