Local bills are in the legislative mix

Annexation, natural gas aid considered in Raleigh
By Vicki Hyatt | Jun 04, 2014

As North Carolina legislators work at break-neck speed to tackle issues such as the state budget, fracking, Medicaid cost control and education issues, there are two local items that impact only Haywood County.

Whether there will be time to consider them this session is unknown for now.

One issue involves the bill that passed the Senate last session to pave the way for Lake Junaluska to be annexed by Waynesville. The second involves $12 million in funding to assist Evergreen Packaging, Inc. in its process to upgrade its Canton paper mill to meet air quality guidelines for toxic emissions.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said both are items the local delegation is still working on.

“There’s nothing definitive to report on either of these issues,” he said in an email response. “Be assured we are still working to get them addressed.”

Buddy Young, public works director at Lake Junaluska, said the number of large issues on the legislative agenda may hamper the ability to get the annexation measure on the front burner.

“We’re working on it with most of the key people,” Young said. “It’s just a matter of if it gets on the agenda. If we can do that, I think we’ll have a good chance of it passing.”

The issue, which had broad support in both Waynesville and with Lake Junaluska residents, easily passed the state Senate, but got held up in the house.

“We’re better organized this time," Young said. “The first time, we were new to the game — naïve. This time, we’ve got a better handle on what’s going on. If we get a favorable ruling on the finance committee and get it on the agenda, then it will go.”

At one point, a referendum was discussed in the halls of Raleigh, and it’s an idea Lake Junaluska is open to.

“We would like it without one because we could move a little quicker, but we’ve got two-thirds support easily, with petitions backing up what our initial survey says,” Young said.

It would not matter whether the referendum required a vote of property owners only (many of whom vote elsewhere and stay at the lake only part-time) or registered voters in the affected area, Young said, as the research show there is public support for the annexation either way of voting.

Those working on providing the needed infrastructure to upgrade natural gas capacity in the county — something that will directly benefit Evergreen Packaging Inc., in its plan to clean up toxic substances in the air — are optimistic state help can be secured.

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners budgeted $700,000 for the project over the next two fiscal years, and the N.C. Department of Commerce has provided a $2.1 million grant. The company has asked the state for an additional $12 million to help defray the cost of a project for which it has committed $50 million.

However, Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said it is possible the county won’t need to put up the $700,000.

“We’re in negotiations with PSNC (the natural gas provider) and it is fluid as to how it will work,” Swanger said. “We know they want total ownership and control of the infrastructure.”

Swanger and Commissioner Mike Sorrells, who has been working on the project as part of the county’s economic development effort, said they are hopeful state help on the project is forthcoming.

“We’ve been told by members of the legislative delegation they are confident of state assistance in the project in addition to the grant Haywood recently received,” Swanger said.

Both Davis and Sen. Tom Apodaca are considered key to the success of the measure, as is Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger, Sorrells said, and all are very supportive of the project.

“Everyone we’ve spoken with understands the implications of 1,000 jobs and the ripple effects,” Swanger said.

“Plus this will provide additional capacity for growth in our county,” Sorrells said.

When companies are looking for sites to move to or open a new business, the availability of natural gas is a significant factor, both said, because it is the cheapest form of energy.

Rep. Michele Presnell has been working on the budget on the House side, and has a bill in that would modify a key law that spells out which counties can receive economic development help. Currently, the less wealthy counties have a more favorable chance of providing incentives, and Haywood is in the second tier.

The law could need to be changed if necessary for the Haywood project to qualify, but Presnell said in an email she felt certain the money will be there, “either in the final budget, or using that bill to get the money that way.”