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Waynesville and Lake Junaluska talk merger

fr junaluskaAs Lake Junaluska residents chart a future course for their community, two options now remain on the table: become its own town or merge with the town of Waynesville.

For decades, Lake Junaluska has operated as a well-oiled homeowners association — with its own security force, trash pick-up, water and sewer service and other amenities normally only found in actual towns.

That model is no longer feasible for a residential community of more than 800 homes, and Lake Junaluska needs to form its own town or merge with Waynesville, according to a task force that has spent the past several months examining the community’s future.

How the community plans to deal with its aging infrastructure has been one of the chief concerns. The task force originally presented four options — including remaining as it was and asking Waynesville to take on its sewer and water systems.

However, the task force decided that it was not feasible to remain as a loosely-organized homeowners association. As for getting Waynesville to take on its infrastructure problems, that wasn’t going to happen unless Lake Junaluska went all in and officially became part of the town, including paying town property taxes.

Otherwise, “There is nothing in it for Waynesville,” said Buddy Young, a member of the task force and director of public works at the Lake. “It was clear that it was not a viable option. That was not a realistic option.”

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Updating the sewer and water system would cost about $1.77 million. In exchange for taking on ownership and maintenance of the lake’s water and sewer lines, Waynesville could bill customers an additional service fee to help cover the cost, but not enough to make the deal attractive to the town.

“If we’d have asked them, they would have said ‘no, they are not interested in doing that,” said Ron Clauser, chair of the task force. “I did not feel it was the right thing to do to ask someone to take over your liabilities.”

Clauser and Young addressed the Waynesville Board of Aldermen last week to talk about one of the leading options still on the table: being annexed by the town of Waynesville.

“We’ve got to make sure Waynesville is interested in annexation,” Young said.

Although Waynesville leaders have not held any official public meetings to discuss the possible merger with its own current residents, town leaders and the task force at Lake Junaluska have talked openly and willingly about the idea.

“The public has been engaged,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. “The public has the option at any time to come talk to us.”

Brown added that he personally has had several informal “coffee cup conversations” with constituents, including business owners. Those he has spoken with have many of the same questions as the town board and find the possibility interesting, he said.


Going into study mode

Now that Lake Junaluska has indicated its interest in moving forward with talks of annexation, the next step will be to hire a firm to study what the merger would look like and how it would affect both areas.

Although it has not been decided exactly what the study will entail, the consultant would look at things like what roads are eligible for state maintenance funds and what upgrades the sewer system would need in coming years.

Ultimately, town leaders will want to know how much it will cost the town to provide services to the newly annexed area versus how much it would get in property taxes.

The study, which could take anywhere from four weeks to six months, depending on its depth, will help “determine whether it is a financially feasible opportunity,” said Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal. The report will cost somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000. Waynesville has already budgeted $25,000 for the study and hopes to receive some grant funding. It is unclear if and how much Lake Junaluska will contribute.

Last month, Onieal presented some estimated numbers and projections to the task force at a public meeting attended by about 100 Lake Junaluska residents and property owners. However, she said more work would need to be done in order to find out if annexation is a good option for Waynesville and Lake Junaluska.


Up to the residents

For annexation to go through, state law requires a vote to be held of property owners in the area targeted for annexation. A majority must support annexation for it to go through.

No matter what Lake Junaluska decides, Waynesville will play a role.

“The end result will be some kind of marriage, but all we are doing now is talking on the phone or holding hands,” Brown said.

If the Lake Junaluska community instead decides to become its own town, legislators will want to know that the town of Waynesville is OK with the idea, given the close proximity of the neighboring town limits.

“Waynesville’s support is so critical on either one of these issues,” Young said.

Although its incorporation doesn’t seem like a bad thing for Waynesville on the surface, it could mean less state funding for the town. The more towns North Carolina has, the less money each town receives from the state.

Incorporation could also prevent the town from growing in the future. Waynesville would only be able to expand up to Lake Junaluska’s town limits, which would not give the town much room for expansion on that end of town.

“You have just limited your own town’s ability to grow in that direction,” Onieal said of the possibility of Lake Junaluska becoming its own town.

Brown said he doesn’t think town leaders would actively fight Lake Junaluska becoming its own town if that is what the community decides is the best option.

“I don’t know that we would publicly oppose it in some fashion,” Brown said. “I might think they are being foolish. But, never tell a man he has an ugly wife.”


How to decide?

Brown said that the decision for Waynesville regarding a possible merger will largely revolve around the answer to one question — is it rational? Do the numbers show that annexing Lake Junaluska will benefit Waynesville?

“A lot of this is going to be driven by the facts,” Brown said.

For Lake Junaluskans, the answer will be more complex. From the get-go, the task force has made it clear that incorporating is the pricey and more difficult option.

In the beginning, Clauser said he thought the idea of becoming a town was an untouchable dream, given the standards and legal hurdles that it must jump through. However, after some more investigation, he is slightly more optimistic.

“Now, I think it has gone from impossible to rather difficult,” Clauser said.

The overarching question with incorporation is: how much is preserving their identity worth? Not only would incorporation include legal fees needed to get the measure passed through the legislature, but residents and property owners would also need to pay the new town start-up costs and ongoing overhead of a town. Lake Junaluska would need a town hall, a police chief and a town manager, among other employees; it would need to dedicate time, effort and money toward creating the groundwork of its town from nearly scratch.

“Incorporation is a bit of a long shot even if that is what the task force decides,” Young said. “Annexation is much more realistic.”

However, some are concerned that Lake Junaluska will lose its unique identity, which has developed during the past 100 years as the lake grew from a summer retreat for Methodists from across the South into a full-fledged community.

Years down the road, people could say they are glad Lake Junaluskans decided to pay more money to preserve their identity, Young said. Then again, they could not.

“There are just so many questions that have got to be answered,” Young said.

Waynesville leaders have assured residents that the merger would not mean the death of Lake Junaluska as people know it today.

There is no deadline for when the task force will make a recommendation. The group will meet with the Lake Junaluska Community Council and then present its findings and discussions thus far to the lake’s board of directors at its October meeting.

“We have never been under any time pressure,” Clauser said. “I have been very pleased with the process.”

Both Clauser and Young said the process has moved more quickly than they thought it would.

“The process has moved a lot quicker than I anticipated,” Young said. “I think it shows a lot of enthusiasm.”


Options on the table

Lake Junaluska is now weighing two options: annexation into Waynesville or becoming a town itself. 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 per $100 property value.

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