With little government oversight, 495 acres in north-central Orange County have developed haphazardly for more than 50 years.
Broken-down cars and weeds fill the backyard of a dilapidated house along South Gilbert Street, while over on Hillview Road, a mile away, well-groomed lawns frame sprawling ranch homes that sell for a million dollars. In between, recreational vehicles sit on front lawns, alleys serve as parking lots and shopping carts are abandoned along curbs.
Such are the disparities in a neighborhood that has grown up without the benefit -- or burden -- of municipal government.
As Orange County cities grew and expanded all around it, this neighborhood, with no dowry to offer a neighboring city, was ignored. As a result, it was governed by county bureaucrats, and today finds itself an unincorporated island surrounded by neighborhoods under Anaheim rule.
But that may change.
By year’s end, Anaheim could annex the island’s 8,000 residents, raising its population to more than 350,000 -- about the same as Santa Ana, the county’s most populous city. Last month, Anaheim council members and county supervisors took the first step toward annexation of the neighborhood by voting to initiate the nearly yearlong process.
The more that longtime residents learn about how annexation would change their lives, the more they take sides.
Some want Anaheim police and fire protection, the opportunity to vote in city elections and the uniformity that would come with enforcement of city zoning and building codes.
“Walt Disney used to walk around these streets all the time,” said Kathy Smith, a 40-year resident.
“He would rise in his grave if he saw the deterioration.”
But others resent another layer of government, and what it means symbolically and in everyday life.
“Crime is already pretty low in this area,” said 30-year resident Burt Sullivan.
“The Sheriff’s Department is quick enough in their response. No, I don’t like all the rundown houses, but Anaheim has some pretty rough looking areas too.”
The island -- bounded by Gilbert Street on the west, Brookhurst Street on the east, Broadway on the north and Katella Avenue on the south -- is split into three regions.
La Colonia, an 80-year-old Latino neighborhood on the southern border, grew out of orange and avocado groves and bean fields. The single-story homes in the Sherwood Forest and Thistle developments were built in the 1950s.
Smith, who was appointed last week by Mayor Curt Pringle to head an annexation task force, said she has been pressing Anaheim officials to annex the island for decades.
“In the past, these [City Hall] people really didn’t care about West Anaheim,” she said.
“All the money and power has gone to Anaheim Hills. There just hasn’t been the political will to do it until now. Curt Pringle is the first city official who actually seems to care.”
Pringle, a former Assembly speaker and a conservative Republican, said his views on annexation have evolved over the years.
“The purpose of government has shifted,” Pringle said. “In an urbanized county, a lot of land-use functions are no longer done by counties. There’s no other county service area that touches this land, so becoming part of Anaheim is the best way to serve the community. I believe this annexation is just good government.”
Annexations of unincorporated county islands of 75 acres or less are common; Anaheim has annexed four such areas over the last year. But the county has had a harder time unloading larger islands.
“There is not a lot of incentive for cities to take on these big plots of land, especially if they’re largely residential, like the one near Anaheim,” said Supervisor Chris Norby.
“Unless there are several big box [warehouse retail] stores that come along with the island, there’s not a lot of tax revenue to cover the expenses that the extra residents bring with them.”
Pringle, who grew up two blocks from La Colonia in Garden Grove, acknowledged the annexation won’t generate revenue for Anaheim.
“The true winners are the residents,” Pringle said. “If at the end of the day the city has to spend a few more hundred thousand dollars, it’s no big deal.”
In the next several months, city officials will hold public meetings on annexation.
By May, the City Council could give the plan final approval and forward it to the Local Agency Formation Commission, which would then begin a three- to six-month review.
If the commission approves the plan, the annexation would occur unless more than 25% of the registered voters in the area petitioned for an election. The annexation could be killed without a vote if more than 50% of registered voters signed petitions objecting to the plan.
Sullivan said he planned to organize a petition drive to block the annexation. Janet Stapp, who has lived in the same Sherwood Forest house for 48 years, said she was leaning toward joining Sullivan’s fight.
“I’m perfectly happy with the county,” she said.
“The county has been great in getting us money for new sidewalks, new streetlights and other improvements. Code enforcement hasn’t been so hot, but there’s two sides to that. We like being able to park our RVs on our property.”
Even if code enforcement were more strict in Anaheim, Pringle said residents of the unincorporated island wouldn’t have to completely change their lifestyle.
“The city is not interested in going in there and whacking people upside the head because of some potential flaw with their property,” he said.
But Ted Mendoza, a La Colonia resident for 35 years, said he would welcome code enforcement in his neighborhood.
“We’ve got 11 cars sitting in a [neighbor’s] yard, a bunch of families living in one house and gang graffiti all over the place,” he said.
“I know some people around here are set in their ways and don’t want things to change, but I’m all for annexation. They should have done it a long time ago.”