Clock runs out on lake, town merger
The proposed annexation between Lake Junaluska and Waynesville is officially on hold.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown asked Sen. Jim Davis, who introduced a Senate bill that has already passed, to withdraw it from the House Finance Committee. That means the bill can come up again in the General Assembly's short session that will be held next year.
“The political stars haven't aligned themselves correctly for passage in this legislative session,” Brown said in an email interview. “After the finance committee would be the rules committee, three readings in the House and another visit to the Senate floor. I never quit, but a tactical retreat is often the first step to success.”
Jack Ewing, executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly, said the move is an “acceptable option.”
“The possibility of bill not being acted upon is not all bad for us,” he said. “We hope an amicable solution can be reached.”
Ewing said Assembly leaders would continue to work with property owners, the community council, the board of directors and other leaders in the community to chart the most appropriate course that will meet the needs of Lake Junaluska.
Those needs include an estimated $6 million in infrastructure upgrades, $1.8 million of which were deemed immediate. More than a year has been spent discussing the options available to rebuild 100-year-old water and sewer lines and upgrade streets. Two leadership groups at the lake, as well as a task force, recommended annexation with Waynesville following a survey of the 811 property owners, with nearly two-thirds of those responding supporting the option.
A vocal group has pressed their case against the move, with many of those in opposition saying they fear Lake Junaluska will lose its Christian identify if it merges with Waynesville.
Others question the Assembly's authority to speak on behalf of property owners and are asking why the option of handling infrastructure improvements through the existing water and sewer district wasn’t more fully explored.
Ewing said the possibility of working with the Lake Juanluska Sanitary District was looked at but dismissed since the district purchases services through the town of Waynesville
“On the surface it may seem logical, but unless the sanitary district was willing to take a loss on having Lake Junaluska be a part of it, the cost could not be less expensive,” he said.
The opposition has found a friendly ear with Rep. Michele Presnell, (R-Burnsville), who doesn’t represent voters in either Lake Junaluska or Waynesville, but has attended all the hearings and is philosophically opposed to annexation in general and the Lake Junaluska bill in particular.
Former Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway, who worked with the task force, wrote a lengthy letter to Presnell last week outlining all the work that has been done on the issue and imploring her to change her position.
He noted that in his 39 years of public service, he had never witnessed a more open process than the one used to study the issues facing the lake. While there was much talk about having a “vote” on the issue, the state election process requires those who cast a ballot on annexation must be registered voters in the affected area. Assembly records show that about 60 percent of the community’s property owners live outside the area, and thus would not be eligible to vote.
“I would encourage you to use your position in the General Assembly to see that the bill for merger of Lake Junaluska into Waynesville is revived and passed in the current session of the General Assembly,” Galloway wrote to Presnell. “To do otherwise, would, in my opinion, be contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of the property owners at Lake Junaluska.”
Currently, those within the Lake Junaluska community pay an assessment of 33 cents for every $100 of property value, a fee that was challenged in court and deemed legal. If the community was annexed by Waynesville, the town’s rate of 40 cents per $100 of value would have applied.
Ewing said the annual assessments are sent out at the end of the year and the board of directors, along with the community council, will discuss what an appropriate level will be for 2014.
One of the advantages of affiliating with a government entity, the task force concluded, was the ability to secure low-interest loans or grants to complete projects and spread the payments out over time.