Sunset group sues over annexation, taxes

A Sunset Beach citizens group has filed a lawsuit against Huntington Beach and a county commission, demanding that the city and county either negate the recent annexation of Sunset Beach or require a vote among the community's residents in favor of paying new taxes.

The Citizen's Assn. of Sunset Beach, a nonprofit that formed in July to oppose the annexation, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Orange County Superior Court. The association seeks a court order directing the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission to reject the annexation or require a favorable vote on taxes; another court order the group wants would direct the city to revise its application to annex Sunset or to hold an election on the tax issue.

The lawsuit also asks that the commission, known as LAFCO, refrain from further action on the annexation until the matters addressed in the suit are resolved.

LAFCO put Sunset under Huntington's sphere of influence in July 2009 in an effort to rid the county of unincorporated islands. In July of this year, the city applied for an "island annexation" of Sunset, which applies to communities smaller than 150 acres and removes the communities' right to protest being annexed.

At first, the city declared that because Sunset was being annexed as an island, it would not be forced to pay new taxes. In November, though, the city announced that it had reexamined the laws and determined that it had to charge Sunset the same taxes as the rest of Huntington. LAFCO approved the city's application Dec. 8, although at least one member of the commission acknowledged that Sunset had a legitimate grievance.

"The perception is that there is a bait and switch, whether real or not," Jack Markovitz, the president of the Citizen's Assn., said in an e-mail.

A spokeswoman for Stern, Van Vleck & McCarron, the Sacramento-based firm representing Markovitz, said the case would go to preliminary hearing Jan. 7 at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.

According to the lawsuit, the association's counsel contacted LAFCO in July and September about the tax issue, telling commissioners the association believed the city was misleading Sunset residents by claiming it wouldn't impose a new utility tax. The counsel asked that LAFCO require the city to obtain a favorable vote from residents on the utility tax, but LAFCO did not respond, according to the lawsuit.

The counsel made a similar request in November after City Atty. Jennifer McGrath announced that Sunset residents would pay all the same taxes as the rest of the city, but the commission still did nothing, according to the lawsuit.

Markovitz said he had heard nothing yet from LAFCO or the city, but had gotten positive feedback from Sunset residents.

"The people who have communicated with me are very grateful that the association has filed the lawsuit on their behalf and that someone is representing them," he said.

Greg Griffin, a member and former president of the Sunset Beach Community Assn., a fellow citizens group that attempted to thwart the annexation before Huntington's City Council voted to proceed, said even though members of his group were divided on annexation, they agreed on taxes.

"Some people are for annexation, some are against it, but I think everyone is united in that they want the right to vote on whether they'll pay the tax or not," Griffin said.

His group's attorney, he said, had sent a request to the state attorney general for a ruling on whether Huntington's imposition of taxes violated the law.

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