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The skinny on a slice of O.C. beach life

Quirks and perks
Like most homes in Sunset Beach, this one lies steps away from the sand and surf.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

Blink and you’ll miss it.

Sunset Beach, an unincorporated 1 1/4 - mile sliver along the northern edge of Orange County’s stretch of ocean, is a tight-knit community. For more than 100 years, tourists and residents have been drawn by the beauty and serenity of the surf-side sanctuary, where pretty much anywhere is a short walk to the sand.

The community prides itself on being “indie,” so visitors beware: Don’t compare it to Newport Beach.

To the east of this area, which runs parallel to Pacific Coast Highway, is the bay-front community of Huntington Harbour (part of Huntington Beach); to the north, in Seal Beach, are a naval weapons station and a national wildlife refuge. Gated Surfside Colony, between Sunset Beach and the naval station, is part of Seal Beach.

Beginnings

After the Pacific Electric’s Newport-Balboa rail line began operating in the early 1900s, travelers discovered several new coastal communities, among them Sunset Beach. What they found was an idyllic setting with a chance to stake their claim a few steps from the ocean.

Homes and businesses soon sprang up along the railroad tracks, and residents were able to commute to larger population centers such as Los Angeles with ease.

As roads improved and automobiles became more popular, rail ridership declined. The line was discontinued in June 1950. Sunset Beach’s last link to the Pacific Electric’s Red Car past is the old ticket office. Today, it is occupied by Mother’s, a popular bar with a history as colorful as its unmistakable bright red building.

Recognizing the need to upgrade and maintain the beachfront area, the Orange County Board of Supervisors began a series of infrastructure improvements in 1968. The former rail-line right of way was redeveloped to create more parking to handle the beach community’s growing number of visitors.

Insider’s viewpoint

In the 1920s, the stretch of road from Anderson Street to Warner Avenue was dotted with one- and two-story beach cottages, which over the years have been torn down, remodeled or replaced with ultramodern, tri-level mansions. One, which sold last year for $7.4 million, is an 8,000-square-foot, six-bedroom, six-bathroom custom home.

Trying to preserve what remains of old Sunset -- at least on canvas -- is watercolorist Bill Anderson.

“About five years ago, I started painting Sunset,” said Anderson, who owns a small gallery next to Captain Jack’s seafood restaurant. “I saw things starting to change, and it was time to start documenting those changes.” While he was painting one of the old cottages recently, the owner came out and told Anderson that the home was now in the family’s third generation.

“This town has a very interesting mix of people,” said resident and local historian Pat Thies, 72. “There are a lot of families who settled here a long time ago, and they’re still here.”

The reason people want to live in Sunset, Thies believes, is that they desire the laid-back, friendly beach lifestyle.

Even newcomers, Thies added, jump right in and volunteer their time for the Sunset Beach Community Assn. Since Sunset is unincorporated, the elected group is the community’s direct liaison to the Orange County supervisor’s office.

Housing stock

Homes run the gamut, including century-old beach cottages and Mediterranean-style mansions with panoramic ocean views. Current prices range from about $500,000 to $4.2 million. About 15 homes are listed and a few others are for sale through word of mouth, according to Mike Colonna of Star Investment Group, a division of Star Real Estate.

Local color

A story about Sunset Beach wouldn’t be complete without at least a mention of the landmark home of Jerry Wallace, which was converted from an old water tower.

“It’s not for sale,” said Wallace, fire chief for the city of South Pasadena. “But if somebody offered me $5 million, I’d think about it.”

Wallace is torn. If he sells it, he’ll be losing a unique piece of property, but it doesn’t make sense for his family to live there right now.

What people don’t realize, Wallace said, is that the home, which has an elevator, costs him $75,000 a year to maintain because of its tricky mechanical systems. With that figure in mind, his $4,000-a-week charge to rent it doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Report card

There are no schools in Sunset Beach. Children may attend school in Huntington Beach at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School (which scored 874 out of 1,000 on the 2007 Academic Performance Index Base Report), Ethel Dwyer Middle School (837) and Huntington Beach High (766) or Ocean View High (712).

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Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; cde.ca.gov; beachcalifornia.com/sunset-beach-bars-mothers.html; erha.org; ziprealty.com.


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