Gaston & Catawba

Lake dwellers want a town

This lakeside community is paradise to those who call it home. They want to keep it that way.

That's why some community leaders want to make Lake James a bona fide town – with the ability to decide its destiny and to get more public services for the rural spot.

And it's also why others are just as set against the idea.

It's not surprising that talk of controlling Lake James – part of Duke Energy's chain of electricity-producing reservoirs on the Catawba River – would set off such arguing. The postcard beauty of the lake and neighboring Linville Gorge Wilderness, along with soaring real-estate values, make it a coveted prize that people are willing to lose their tempers over.

Members of the Community of Lake James nonprofit group are collecting signatures on a petition supporting the incorporation effort. They have the number needed to request a referendum on incorporation of Lakes James, but hope to get enough signatures to request a state bill creating a town without the step of a referendum.

Some worry that incorporation would cut the public's access to the lake or lead to unwanted development that would damage the resource. Burke County officials are concerned that a town would undo planning they developed for the lake's future.

Meanwhile, nearby Morganton's mayor denies comments by some Lake James incorporation proponents that the city could someday annex the community if Lake James doesn't incorporate.

Debate over incorporating

Though Lake James State Park and other spots provide public access to the 6,500-acre lake, some people fear incorporation would cut them off from the lake or ruin the natural character.

But incorporation advocates say they would preserve the area, maintain current zoning laws and share the lake with those who live elsewhere. They say they simply want to make a town out of four square miles of developed shoreline on the Burke County side of the lake, calling it the Village of Lake James.

“We're not for closing off the lake,” said CLJ president Howard Morgan, who lives on Lake James' eastern shore and used to fish its waters as a teenager. “It's about having a voice and controlling our destiny.”

The seeds of the incorporation effort date to 2004, when Burke County commissioners talked of establishing a tax district in the Lake James area that would have imposed an extra tax on property owners there. Residents organized the CLJ to fight the proposal, and commissioners later dropped the idea.

But the group stayed active. Members have discussed their desire for more services, including full-time police protection and a closer ambulance station.

CLJ is trying to get the signatures of 50 percent of the registered voters in the proposed town in time to request that a local bill be introduced in the state legislature for next year's long session. The group has until November to make that goal.

Burke County commissioners Chairman Wayne Abele said the county is working to improve public services in Lake James. It's in everyone's best interest, Abele said, if the county and state continue to control the area “rather than some little municipality.”

“They could undo every bit of zoning we've done out at the lake. I believe the county can manage this lake … and do a better job, because we answer to all those people,” Abele said, referring to residents and visitors to the area. “That lake is not owned by a little group of people.”

New town taxes

Mel Cohen, long-time mayor of Morganton, brushed aside concerns that the Burke County seat might annex the community.

“That's impossible,” Cohen said by phone. “ …We have never and will never in many lifetimes be able to (extend) up to Lake James to annex them.”

If incorporation succeeds, the new town would charge the approximately 1,000 property owners there a tax of 5cents per $100 of assessed property value.