Lawsuit gives Sunset Beach a reprieve in annexation battle

After 106 years, the Orange County coastal enclave of Sunset Beach was set to disappear next week — if not in spirit, then at least on official maps — with its annexation by the city of Huntington Beach.

But traditions die hard in this close-knit, independent-minded community, where a greenbelt is the community focal point and residents pick up their mail at the post office because there’s no home delivery.

Now, a lawsuit has given Sunset Beach a temporary reprieve.

The suit, filed by a group of residents angry about new taxes that will be imposed when they become part of Huntington Beach, seeks to scuttle the annexation approved last month by the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission.


LAFCO officials say they will delay filing the necessary paperwork with the county to complete the annexation until at least Jan. 19, when a hearing on a request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled in Orange County Superior Court.

“We’re committed,” said Jack Markovitz, a member of the Citizens Assn. of Sunset Beach, which he said has raised $70,000 to wage a legal brawl over annexation. “This is not a bluff by people with no means of carrying this thing through.”

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 9, is the latest twist in the long-running effort by the county to jettison control and costly services to isolated unincorporated areas such as Sunset Beach, a narrow strip of 134 acres with a population of about 1,200.

Sunset Beach residents have resisted the idea of being annexed by Huntington Beach —population 200,000-plus — fearing that their community’s identity and concerns would be lost amid the larger city.

Sunset Beach is a throwback to a California that barely exists today. There’s nothing tony about its funky bars and nautical-themed restaurants. Street parking is free, the beach is uncrowded, and limits on building heights preserve ocean views.

“In Sunset Beach you get to know your neighbors better,” said Greg Griffin, a longtime resident and former president of the Sunset Beach Community Assn. “There’s nothing wrong with Huntington Beach. It’s a great city. We just wanted to control our own destiny.”

Sunset Beach sought to incorporate as a city, but LAFCO determined the community didn’t have the tax base to support itself. An attempt to be annexed by smaller Seal Beach was rebuffed.

Eventually, Griffin and others on the community association decided it was time to negotiate.

“Annexation to Huntington Beach was 99% probable,” said Griffin, who had opposed annexation and did not seek reelection to the board in November. “So we formed a committee to make the best deal we could.”

Huntington Beach agreed to allow Sunset Beach to maintain its name, parking and beach rules. The city also agreed to keep its hands off the greenbelt, where community events are held.

“Huntington Beach was being very accommodating on everything we asked for,” said Mike VanVoorhis, the new association president. “Change is scary, but life in Sunset Beach should stay pretty much as it’s been. I think the majority of people here have come to accept it.”

Markovitz is among those who has not.

His group’s lawsuit takes aim at various Huntington Beach taxes, in particular a 5% utility users tax that Sunset Beach residents would begin paying after annexation.

Their lawsuit contends that under state law, Sunset Beach residents have a right to vote on the annexation because of the new taxes.

Huntington Beach officials, however, say the taxes aren’t new — they will just be extended to the city’s new borders — and that state law allows cities to annex “islands” of less than 150 acres without voter approval.

Markovitz and his supporters believe Huntington Beach officials misled Sunset Beach by first saying the taxes wouldn’t be imposed and then reversing themselves just weeks before LAFCO’s vote on annexation.

“These people have lied to us, and now they want to become our leaders and they want us to go quietly along,” Markovitz said.

Huntington Beach officials did not return calls seeking comment. However, they’ve said in the past that they would face a lawsuit from current city residents if Sunset Beach were exempted from the taxes.

“Without defending Huntington Beach” on the 11th-hour late reversal, “I think their hand was forced,” VanVoorhis said. “They were going to be sued either way.”