Lake Junaluska moves on

Abandoning annexation hopes clears a path forward
By Vicki Hyatt | Jan 05, 2017
Jack Carlisle, director of public works at Lake Junaluska Assembly, displays a piece of galvanized pipe that has been delivering water for decades before being replaced. The silver sleeve was a patch, which was standard practice in the past, but the new policy is to methodically replace lines in bad shape.

Four years ago, the Lake Junaluska community was in the midst of a spirited discussion about how to address $10 million in critical infrastructure needs facing the 103- year-old community.

Census data shows less than 900 families live in the community that surrounds a vibrant conference and retreat center.

Extensive studies, as well as community surveys showed the preferred solution was to be annexed by the town of Waynesville, whose leaders had been part of early discussions. Becoming part of a municipality would open the door to low-interest loans and grants available to government entities, but not a private one, and that was viewed as a more practical way to upgrade water and sewer lines and repair crumbling roads.

Waynesville and Lake Junaluska charted a path believed to be beneficial to both, but the plan failed to gain traction with the N.C. General Assembly, which had to approve a local bill for the plan to advance. Even after the original bill was altered to reflect a vote from residents in both areas, something legislators originally said would make the bill palatable, the Republican-controlled legislature decided local decisions were best made in Raleigh.

Recognizing the futility of pursuing the annexation route, the Lake Junaluska governing body voted two months ago to formally abandon annexation efforts and pursue a sustainability model based on making repairs as money became available.

Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jack Ewing said the work done to prepare for annexation provided an excellent blueprint of the critical needs. Two separate studies identified 18 projects — half roads and half water/sewer lines — deemed to be critical. Most of the projects were in the conference center area, the oldest part of the community.

Because the needs were deemed critical and the annexation process was not going well, in 2013, the Lake Junaluska Assembly, Inc. governing board voted to raise the assessment on property and the base service fees to begin saving money for the needed repairs.

With the accumulated funds, Jack Carlisle, director of assembly public works, has begun addressing the most pressing needs following the new model of sustainability that’s been adopted throughout the organization.

He held up an obviously corroded piece of galvanized water line that had a patch on it that repaired a leak.

“Looking at this, you would think you don’t want to drink anything that comes through it,” Carlisle said, “but this isn’t unusual for many systems. What is unusual is that we are a small enough system that we can systematically go in and replace it. One of the things we’re proud of is even though we are not a municipality, we are replacing to state municipal standards.”

Ewing noted the Band-Aid approach will not be used under the current leadership.

“We will go in and address the problem,” Ewing said. “We won’t be looking at a section of pipe and assessing whether any part can be preserved. We’re focused on sustainability.”

The lake is working with long-term associate Mackie McKay, owner of RCF Construction, on the project list.

“There’s an added benefit that he’s a PE (professional engineer) so we get the benefit of his thinking as we make repairs. If certain replacements require new permitting, he can do that, too.”

As a way to save money, anytime a water or sewer line needs replaced, an entire section is done and the area is repaved after that, Carlisle said.

They hit a lucky break to find one of the more expensive projects identified in the study, a water line on Lakeshore Drive, was much newer and in better shape than expected.

“The studies were based on unknowns,” Ewing said. “As we get into the projects, we learn a whole lot more.”

Carlisle projects that by the end of this year, 10 of the 18 projects will be wrapped up. Several were done before 2014. He projects the Assembly will have spent less than $1 million on all of them.

Ewing said by increasing the millage rates and service charges, the Assembly has not had to borrow any money.

“The fact that we were collecting those funds for a couple of years before we started having major expenses gave us a reserve to take on bigger projects,” he said.

Carlisle predicts the remaining eight projects on the critical list will be completed in the next three to four years using the pay-as-you-go method.

Because the projects being tackled are the ones where water loss was most significant, the Assembly is saving money on its water and sewer charges to Waynesville, which provides those services.

Water loss was 35 percent overall, according to the studies, but a tracking system shows the loss rate has dropped into the upper teens and lower 20s from the recent work, Carlisle said.

“We’re still honing in, but have addressed several significant sources of water leaks already,” he said.

Despite being the largest property owner in Lake Junaluska, which means paying a significant portion of the higher fees, Ewing said that for the fifth year in a row, the Assembly has ended the year in the black.

“Obviously, the Assembly public works is in the black because we’re not spending money we don’t have,” Ewing said. “From a financial standpoint, Lake Junaluska is doing very well.”

That’s not to say there isn't a lot still left to do, he added, ticking off an improvement list for just 2017 that includes upgrades to the Lambuth Inn, reconstruction of the water and sewer lines, as well as the main roadway through the Assembly, to name a few.

The pivot

Ewing said once the lake leaders realized the annexation proposal was not going to pass, they embraced the new vision of sustainability.

“It was not the model a majority preferred, but I don’t get a sense of it moving forward with resignation. It’s more like, ‘OK, we tried that and it didn’t work. Let’s go forward.’ The language we continue to use is developing models of sustainability for our conference center and the residential community of Lake Junaluska.”

Another positive is that the bitter feelings that surfaced as the community studied how to address their problems have disappeared.

“When we were in the middle of it, it was hard to imagine how we could get out of that contentiousness that existed, but feels like we’re in a good place now,” Ewing said.