Huntington Beach is closer to filling the void on the city map known as the Bolsa Chica lowlands.
Council members voted, in three separate actions, to ask staff to prepare the documents needed to annex the 114-acre plot on Pacific Coast Highway between Warner Avenue and Seapoint Street. The area is owned by the county and operated by various local and state agencies.
Staff was also given the go-ahead to begin negotiations with the county and other agencies with the goal of having them retain maintenance responsibilities in the area.
Councilman Dave Sullivan has opposed the annexation of the Bolsa Chica lowlands since the idea was brought up last year, saying that it isn't the right time for the city to be taking on another financial responsibility.
"There is a huge and certain financial liability that is going to hit the city in the next few years, and that is increased payments required because of the statewide [Cal]PERS pension unfunded liability," he said. "We already know that it'll amount to millions of dollars in increased contributions by the city of Huntington Beach."
The City Council was told during a study session in April that the city had about $279 million in unfunded liabilities as of 2011. Huntington Beach paid $24.3 million to CalPERS last fiscal year. The payment is expected to increase annually to nearly double that amount in fewer than six years.
Sullivan said he was also worried about people suing the city if an accident was to occur in Bolsa Chica. He cited a case during the 1990s when a person sued Huntington Beach after biking over a crack in the street and getting injured.
Though the city ultimately won the lawsuit, Sullivan wanted to illustrate to his colleagues that anyone could sue the city over even a small mishap.
"This is not the time to take on additional, large liabilities," he said. "It's time for us to make sure that we have sufficient funds to take care of the essential services our city provides."
Councilwoman Connie Boardman wanted to make clear that the annexation of the lowlands would mean only a change in jurisdiction and not responsibilities.
"We also are not entering into any maintenance agreements at Bolsa Chica," she said. "The state will continue to maintain the inlet [and] it will continue to run the reserve, not the city."
During a study session last month, staff told the council that the city wouldn't incur any reoccurring costs but would actually receive about $130,000 annually from oil extraction taxes.
The City Council is also interested in having Harriett Wieder Regional Park, which abuts the southeast end of Bolsa Chica, become part of the city but would like the county, its owner, to retain reponsibility for the four acres.
City staff said maintenance for the park costs about $39,000 annually.
The council voted 5 to 2, with Sullivan and Mayor Matthew Harper dissenting, to ask staff to begin negotiating with the county.
Harper expressed concern that the orders to staff means that Huntington Beach is interested in inheriting Harriett Wieder and converting it to a city park, but others on the council say they just want to hear what the county has to say.