Trading autonomy for security: Lake Junaluska weighs whether to merge with town of Waynesville
When Tom Sigmon tells people in Charlotte that he only lives there part-time, they often ask where he spends the rest of his year. Waynesville, he responds.
In reality, Sigmon is a property owner and part-time resident of Lake Junaluska, a small Methodist community that sits just outside Waynesville’s borders. But, the two communities are so close and there is so much intermingling among the two, that in some ways they act as one.
“It’s nice to be close to a town that believes in itself,” Sigmon said after hearing a presentation from Waynesville leaders about Lake Junaluska’s possible merger into the town.
Sigmon and his wife, LaVon, have owned property at Lake Junaluska for 40 years. The couple was optimistic about the idea of joining Waynesville.
“I like this option very much,” said LaVon.
Waynesville leaders met with residents and property owners of Lake Junaluska last week to talk about how a possible merger of the two entities would affect them. The presentation was generally well received by the about 100 Lake Junaluska residents and property owners who attended it, but it will be many months before Lake Junaluska decides if annexation into the town of Waynesville is the right move.
“This is far more informative than I thought it would be,” said George Thompson, a member of the Lake Junaluska task force, a 12-person board charged with investigating several options for the community’s future. Thompson called the dialogue “a good beginning step.”
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.
However, Lake Junaluska is facing aging water and sewer lines, and updating the systems would cost the small, 800-home community a tidy sum of $1.77 million.
Now, residents and property owners are trying to decide if they want to bear that burden alone or merge with a larger town, which would take over the sewer and water lines and help pay the cost.
Lake Junaluska is considering four options in all: annexation into Waynesville, becoming a town itself, merging its water and sewer system with Waynesville’s or continuing to operate as it has for nearly a century. Community leaders have held a few meetings to review the various options and hear feedback from its constituents.
While merging with the town of Waynesville would mean paying property taxes, it would actually be the cheaper option compared to what lake residents pay now in homeowners dues.
As for water and sewer rates, town rates are roughly $15 a month cheaper than what lake residents pay now.
But, Lake Junaluska’s aging water and sewer infrastructure — which presumably will take a cash infusion to bring up to par — could allow the town to assess a special payment to the Lake’s residents and property owners to help pay for the cost of upgrading the system. It is unknown if the town would charge them an extra fee, and if so, how much it would be.
“It would be our desire not to have to assess” an additional infrastructure fee, but a final decision has not yet been made, said Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal.
At the meeting with Lake homeowners, Onieal ran down the benefits of annexation. Property taxes would be deductible on federal income taxes. Nearly 10,000 residents would share the cost of services and infrastructure rather than only 800 homes at the Lake. There is an existing government structure including zoning regulations. And Waynesville already has expert staff in place and access to more revenue streams, including grants, for various civic projects.
“You are not having to invent it from scratch,” Onieal said, comparing the options of forming its own town versus joining Waynesville.
The annexation would not be without its benefits to Waynesville either. The town would see about $750,000 more in property tax revenue each year. It would assume control over the sewer and water lines, which can be viewed as assets. The merger would also allow Waynesville to expand its geographic boundaries.
Lake Junaluska’s demographics trend toward the higher income, higher median housing values, and higher education level.
“We think this is good growth, and you all as a community are a good match for Waynesville,” Onieal said. “I think if you were 600 drug dealers, we might have a different (opinion).”
But, there are also downsides. For Waynesville, the aging infrastructure poses a potentially costly concern as well as the expenses associated with annexation. Its employees would also have an increased workload.
The police department would also need to hire between two and four new officers to cover the additional area. Currently, the Lake contracts with a private security firm. The community paid $236,000 in fiscal year 2011 for security.
For Lake Junaluska, the disadvantages are less tangible. Community members are worried about retaining their identity. Lake Junaluska has a 100-year history. It began as a summer retreat for Methodists from across the South and grew into a full-fledged community over the decades.
Prior to the meeting, some Lake Junaluska stakeholders expressed concern that Waynesville with its more than 9,800 residents would gobble up the small community. But, Waynesville leaders assured those in attendance that the town is not trying to force Lake Junaluska into annexation and only began considering it after being approached by Lake Junaluska leaders first.
“There are no grand schemes to annex,” Onieal said, adding that Waynesville will only annex Lake Junaluska if that’s what the community wants.
In any case, the N.C. General Assembly is making it harder to annex properties to prevent cities from simply grabbing lands to increase its property tax base.
“There is sort of an anti-annexation sentiment moving through the state,” Onieal said.
Several leaders — both from Waynesville and Lake Junaluska — spoke about the interconnectivity of the two communities.
Task force board chair Ron Clauser noted that the Lake might not have survived without Waynesville. In its early years, Lake Junaluska did not have places to house people or restaurants to feed them while they visited for religious gatherings and conferences, but Waynesville did.
“I have always thought of Lake Junaluska as a part of the community,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. The communities have a “symbiotic relationship.”
Big decision ahead
So the question for Waynesville and Lake Junaluska is: Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
“At this point, we don’t have enough information to answer that,” Onieal said.
And, the town has not yet reached out to its current residents to see if annexation of neighboring Lake Junaluska is a something they want as well. If Waynesville receives a thumbs-up from Lake Junaluska, indicating that the community is interested in investigating the matter further, the town will move forward with a feasibility study.
“This is not something we want to embark on lightly,” Onieal said. “The town of Waynesville really needs to understand that this is something the residents of Junaluska are interested in.”
The study would cost between $40,000 and $50,000, and the town could start the data-collecting process soon if Lake Junaluska residents and property owners are interested in annexation.
However, Waynesville leaders repeatedly stated that they are in no hurry to rush into anything, especially without consent from Waynesville residents.
“If it doesn’t work for my citizens, we wouldn’t want to go forward,” Mayor Gavin Brown said.
In addition to a list of calculated facts and figures and ‘what ifs,’ Waynesville leaders were able to offer an empirical example — Hazelwood. Waynesville absorbed Hazelwood two decades ago after the small blue-collar community was no longer financially solvent as its own town. Hazelwood still retains its own unique identity today, however.
Like Hazelwood, residents of Lake Junaluska and Waynesville intermingle everyday — they sit at each other’s doorsteps yet are still two distinct bodies.
“People went to school together. They went to church together. They worked at Dayco,” said former Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway, who is on the task force. “I think Waynesville and Junaluska are one community. We’re the same people.”
Lake Junaluska residents and property owners in attendance at the meeting were amenable to the idea.
“It seems like a really attractive proposition,” said Ted Maziejka, a property owner from Sarasota, Fla. “I was shocked that Waynesville’s cost in some cases is less expensive.”
Although many praised the town’s presentation, most are taking their time to decide and officially declare a preference.
“This is a very complicated question,” said J.R. Haynes, a lifelong resident of Lake Junaluska. “I think slow and steady is the way to go.”
Waynesville Alderman LeRoy Roberson exhibited the same caution when addressing the gathered crowd toward the end of the meeting.
“There are so many things that have to be considered,” Roberson said. “I am not ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ right now. I am open-minded.”
Under the right circumstances, Lake Junaluska could be a valuable addition to Waynesville, but it could also burden the town with its aging infrastructure, Robison said.
Bringing the two communities together is an interesting idea, said Waynesville Alderman Wells Greeley, adding that the result could benefit both.
“I thought what a neat concept — Lake Junaluska and Waynesville,” Greeley said. “I am not necessarily convinced that bigger is going to be better, but if you bring the best together, you get exemplary.”
• Total employees: 234 (fulltime and part-time)
• Annual operating budget: $30 million
• Population: 9,869
• Total employees: 12 (fulltime)
• Annual operating budget: $1.2 million to $2 million
• Population: 780
Options on the table
Lake Junaluska is weighing four options: annexation into Waynesville, becoming a town itself, merging its water and sewer system with Waynesville’s or continuing to operate as well-oiled homeowner’s association. Here’s the cost for each to Lake residents.
• Current tax rate for the town of Waynesville: 40.82 cents per $100 property value
• Possible tax rate if creating its own town: 36-43 cents
• Tax rate with merged water/sewer: 47.25 cents
• Current homeowners association fee: 39 cents*
* The current homeowner fee is destined to go up compared to the current level to tackle needed upgrades to aging water and sewer lines.