Lake Junaluska annexation on hold for now

By Vicki Hyatt | Jul 30, 2014

Despite a last-ditch effort to get support from the General Assembly, the Lake Junaluska-Waynessville merger is dead until at least 2015.

The effort has been studied for nearly three years now, and is one leaders of both communities, as well as the vast majority of Lake Junaluska residents, support.

State Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, shepherded the bill through the state Senate, but opposition in the House prevented its passage.

Leaders of the Senate and House have suggested that action on the annexation issue be delayed until the 2015 session of the General Assembly, which begins in January, Davis told local leaders.

"That's a very understandable and reasonable suggestion given the complex, statewide issues the legislature has been dealing with during this short session, and all parties concur," Davis said.

If he’s elected in November, Davis said he would again introduce the measure, this time with a referendum component.

“I don’t know if this will satisfy the opponents,” he said, naming Rep. Michele Presnell,who represents a portion of Haywood County but no voters in Lake Junaluska,  Rep. Mitchell Setzer of Cawtawba County, and Rep. Julia Howard, who represents Davie and Forsyth counties. “I never got any good answers as to why they opposed it.”

Davis said there was talk of adding a referendum to the bill during the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions, but noted the bill never got to the point of a vote.

There appeared to be all sorts of behind-the-scenes politics being played with the bill that had nothing to do with its substance, he said.

“Michele Presnell muddied the water to begin with even when it was not in her district,” Davis said. “That’s a no-no in the Legislature. If it is not your district, you stay out of it.”

In an email response, Presnell said while Lake Junaluska is not part of the 118 House district, it is in Haywood County, which she represents.

“In my view, this was forced annexation by the town of Waynesville,” she wrote. “Many Haywood County residents agree with me. They did not want their tax dollars paying for upgrades to Lake  Junaluska sewer and water facilities. I have spoken with several mayors and former mayors who said you never replace all water and sewer pipes at the same time. They are replaced as needed.”

Forced annexation is no longer possible under state law revised in 2011 as municipal boundary extensions initiated local must receive voter approval.

"In their minds, if one person is annexed against their will, then it is a forced annexation," Davis said, "but if it is on the ballot and the majority favors it, it shouldn't be considered forced. That’s the way we govern."

Work will continue

The delay, said Buddy Young, Lake Junaluska’s public works director, won’t stop the piecemeal approach to address much-needed repairs at the lake, especially to the leaking water system.

The assembly purchases both water and sewer services from Waynesville, and when water seeps directly into the sewer system, it is paid for twice without ever being used.

“Even though we have been working toward annexation, we’ve also been on a separate track of continuing business as if it was not an option,” Young said.

That lead to hefty rate increases on the water bills that began last year, an annual assessment rate hike from $33 per $100 of value to $35.25 and other fee increases.

Even though many of the homes at the lake are closed down for the winter, Young said all homeowners must pay the base rate to be served by the system. The new base rate for water, which was formerly $16 a month, has almost doubled.

Jack Ewing, executive director at Lake Junaluska Assembly, said a referendum is not a new thought and that he’s very comfortable with the idea since it has been demonstrated about two-thirds of the residents of Lake Junaluska, as well as lake property owners, support annexation.

“The community council expressed support for this direction and without a vote to change that, it is a vote we have been charged with pursuing,” Ewing said.

Ewing said Lake Junaluska followed a very careful and thorough process of examining the options for meeting long-term municipal needs and came to the conclusion that annexation by Waynesville is the best option.

As a private community, Lake Junaluska is not eligible for low-interest government loans or any grants government routinely provides for municipalities up upgrade infrastructure.

Second annexation option

The process selected to unite Lake Junaluska and Waynesville was one where the General Assembly was asked to consider a local bill allowing it. Typically, local bills are routinely passed if those representing a district agree on it, which was the case with Rep. Joe Sam Queen, who represents Lake Junaluska, and Davis. But the opposition of several key legislators stalled the measure.

There is another option set forth in the law to annex an area that doesn't adjoin the town, but Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, who is also an attorney, said that is not possible in this case.

A map of the Lake Junaluska area that has long been studied during the annexation discussion best shows why. In a town-initiated proceeding, one-eighth of the property boundary for the area proposed to be annexed must be contiguous to town property.

That isn't the case in this instance. Theoretically, more landowners could be brought into the town if they were willing and petitioned to be added, and that would increase the percentage of contiguous boundary. For instance, if the properties along Fairway Hills Drive were added to the town, it is possible the shared boundary between the town and the proposed Lake Junaluska area to be annexed would satisfy the boundary requirements. But there has never been any discussion or study concerning this issue, Brown said.

"This is the area they requested to be annexed, and that is what we studied," Brown said, pointing to a shaded area on a map that Lake Junaluska asked to have considered being merged with Waynesville.

A second requirement is that the annexation vote must be held in conjunction with a regularly scheduled municipal vote, and that intentions for such a vote must be announced 16 months in advance. Since Waynesville's town board members are all elected at once, that means elections are held only every four years, with the next one scheduled in 2015.

Even if the town wanted to explore this option, there isn't enough time to do in before 2015, so if that deadline were missed, it would push a decision out even farther.

"The statute was basically written to make it impossible for communities to annex property," Brown said.

While the town has worked with Lake Junaluska officials on the annexation issue, the driving force behind the move has come from the lake. Brown has traveled to the state capitol several times in the past two years to speak with legislators on the specifics of the Lake Junaluska annexation bill.

"I've spent a lot of time in Raleigh, but when you become a political football, it is really tough," he said. "Actually it is more like a tether ball in this case."