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Lake Junaluska wades gingerly into discussion of merging with Waynesville

In the coming months Lake Junaluska residents will weigh in on whether to become part of the town of Waynesville.

For Waynesville, the move could mean a million or more dollars in additional property taxes each year and the benefits of being a larger and possibly stronger town.

For Lake Junaluska residents, the daily logistics of running a community of 800 homes could be placed in accomplished hands. And perhaps most importantly, the burden of repairing the community’s aging water and sewer lines would be punted to Waynesville.

But, there are downsides, too. Lake Junaluska residents could lose autonomy and identity. And, Waynesville may not want the hassle of managing Lake Junaluska’s infrastructure if it would cost more than the town stands to reap in new property taxes.

“It appears on the surface to be a win-win, but how much? How much to provide the services?” wondered Waynesville Alderman Wells Greeley during a discussion on the idea at a town board meeting last week.

Discussion of the issue is in its earliest stages and will take months to explore.

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“This decision is going to impact Haywood County for the next 100 years and beyond, so we want it to be in all of our best interests,” said Jack Ewing, the CEO of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

While Lake Junaluska is not an official town, the community already looks and acts like one. It has its own trash pick-up, water and sewer system, street maintenance and even security force. The roughly 800 homes that make up Lake Junaluska’s residential community pay a yearly fee for those services.

The idea of merging with Waynesville comes as Lake Junaluska residents stare down the growing problem of aging water and sewer lines.

“The community will need to decide whether they would like to bear that burden alone, or as part of a larger group,” according to a report by a consultant hired to analyze the pros and cons.

The idea of merging with Waynesville was borne out of that reality.

Lake Junaluska Assembly hired a consultant to study the issue and prepare a report outlining various options — merging with Waynesville, forming its own town or remaining as it is now.

Ultimately, the decision will rest with Lake Junaluska’s residents.

“Each option has some advantages and disadvantages,” said Ron Clouser, president of the Lake Junaluska Community Council. “I would hope that people would have an open mind and take time to read the study and see what it proposes.”

Ewing said leadership at Lake Junaluska is not endorsing any option and has no preconceived notion about which course is best.

“Over the next three to six months, there will be multiple opportunities for people at Lake Junaluska to provide input on these options,” Ewing said.

Down the road there could be a vote to gauge residents’ opinions.

Clouser said he wouldn’t want to factionalize residents by moving forward without a “practically unanimous” consensus.

“I don’t want to see us go down a road that has a split with anybody,” said Clouser, one of seven members elected by homeowners to lead their residential community association.

Ewing shared the consultant’s report with Waynesville leaders at their town board meeting last week. Ewing told the five town board members they will obviously need to embark on a fact-finding mission of their own.

“You may say, ‘No, we are not interested in partnering with you in that way,’” Ewing said.


Which is cheaper?

One question that will likely weigh heavily in the decision is cost: Will residents of Lake Junaluska pay more in property taxes than they would in annual fees?

Currently, the town’s property tax rate is 40 cents per $100 of property value. That’s more than what Lake residents currently pay in fees, set at 28 cents per $100 of property value.

But, that fee is bound to go up if the lake has to tackle its water and sewer problems on its own. By how much is not yet known, however, thus making a true dollar for dollar comparison impossible right now.

“Property owners want to know is this going to cost me more or is it going to save me money,” Ewing said. “The report is intentionally silent on finances. It is important, but we didn’t want people to begin with ‘what is the cheapest option for me, and I like that option best.’”

Indeed, that’s not the only issue that will weigh on residents’ minds, Clouser said.

“I think it is going to be more complicated than that. I think it will be more than just an issue of that number,” Clouser said.

What may be more important to residents is how their community character and identity could be impacted. Lake Junaluska has a 100-year history, and residents who cherish that may not want to place their future in someone else’s hands.

“There is a track record of what it means to live at Lake Junaluska. That is an issue at this point,” Clouser said.

Waynesville has a track record of its own: one of bringing independent communities into its fold. The neighboring town of Hazelwood merged with Waynesville two decades ago, but Alderman Gary Caldwell says it didn’t lose its identity.

“Hazelwood will always be Hazelwood and Lake Junaluska will always be Lake Junaluska,” Caldwell said.

Yet Clouser said Junaluskans have a deep sense of pride, both emotional pride in where they live and financial pride in taking care of their own.

Ewing agreed.

“One of the issues our residents are going to talk about is their desire for independence,” Ewing said “Many people may wish to stay the way we are.”

But, there’s a caveat. A true “status quo” simply isn’t an option, he said. Residents must understand “the responsibility of going it alone when it comes to upgrading our infrastructure,” Ewing said.

This is where Waynesville may prove its mettle.

“Waynesville is better resourced to address the needs of the Lake Junaluska community, such as replacing the water and sewer infrastructure, the capital equipment of Lake Junaluska and paving the roadways,” the consultant’s report states.

But, joining forces with Waynesville has other perks as well. Simply put, Waynesville is seen as a quality-run town.

“Waynesville already has a well-established, successful, and relatively progressive governance structure,” the consultant’s report states. “They have established a culture of efficient, effective, and professional administration that has not yet been created at Lake Junaluska.”


Sister communities

Waynesville leaders, meanwhile, have to figure out the financial pros and cons of the different options.

“My original reaction is there is a distinct opportunity for the town of Waynesville. The question is, is it cost effective?” Mayor Gavin Brown said.

While the extra property tax looks good on paper, the town would have to hire additional trash crews, police officers and street workers to take on such a large new area.

But, the cost of repairing the lake’s water and sewer system will be the kicker. If it appears that it will cost more than the town is getting in return, the town could temporarily impose higher property taxes on residents of the Lake than the rest of town.

“If there is a need to bring a certain system up to code, they can charge a higher rater to that specific area for a set period of time,” said Andrew d’Adesky, a graduate student with the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill that prepared the study on behalf of the Lake.

The town, like the residents of the Lake, has more to consider than just economics. Waynesville and Lake Junaluska are kindred spirits in some ways, both forward-thinking communities on each other’s doorstep. Waynesville Alderman Leroy Roberson said the two have a cross-over relationship.

“There is a mutual community,” Roberson said.

Bringing Lake Junaluska into the town’s fold could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to forever change the town’s course in a positive way, Brown said.

“It would be a nice addition to the town of Waynesville,” Brown said.

But, the town must also ask whether it is worth the hassle. Lake Junaluska is three miles from downtown. Can the town afford to have its attention diverted when there are existing parts of town that need attention?

“Should we add another issue to the town’s plate? Would we spread ourselves too thin?” Brown asked.

Waynesville could also enjoy the benefits of a simply being a larger town.

Lake Junaluska community has around 800 homes — about half are seasonal homes, the other half are lived in by year-round residents. Waynesville’s population of 10,000 would increase by at least 10 percent.

That could mean benefits beyond the obvious increase in property taxes. There are numerous slices of state revenue that towns get based on their population — from a cut of sales tax revenue to street and sidewalk funding.

Bigger population numbers also carry bigger clout, which can come in handy when recruiting businesses or lobbying for the town’s interests in Raleigh.


Lake Junaluska: past and present

Lake Junaluska began as a religious community more than 100 years ago, and as a summer retreat for the United Methodist Church. Pastors, bishops and other church leaders founded the Lake Junaluska for religious gatherings and conferences in 1908.

Almost immediately, they began building summer homes there for their families to escape the heat of the South and a like-minded community quickly built around the Methodist Church retreat.

Lake Junaluska is no longer a private Methodist community. Anyone can buy a home and live there, and it is no doubt the lake community is growing increasingly secular.

But, its roots in the Methodist church have hardly disappeared. Many homes have been passed down through the generations. Children with fond summer memories of the lake came back to live permanently. Lake Junaluska also is a hotbed of retired pastors and bishops. The grounds of the conference center, which dominate the main campus around the lake shore, bustles with conferences and retreats throughout the year.

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