Growing by a Sunset

Surf City, here they come.

Here comes expansion, as tiny Sunset Beach, one of the last unincorporated islands of Orange County, joins the 200,000-resident fold of Huntington Beach.

Here comes the culture of one of the Southland's most offbeat neighborhoods, dominated by one-of-a-kind bars and restaurants and beloved for decades as a celebrity hangout.

And here comes the legal battle, courtesy of a citizens group that sued the city and county a few weeks ago over what it considers unfair taxation.

The annexation of Sunset Beach, and the turmoil that led up to it, qualifies as Huntington's top story of the year. But it was far from the only major event in 2010, when the city saw a former police officer on trial, a packed race for City Council, its local PBS station prepare to go regional, and much more.

Here, in order, are the Independent's picks for the top 10 stories of the year.

1. A new day for Sunset

A month from now, the 1,300-resident coastal strip known as Sunset may be part of Huntington — and so far, it doesn't appear that the neighborhood, in which homes perch on the sand and residents walk to the post office, will change much after the transition.

But that's hardly to say that the annexation has gone smoothly. In the first eight months of the year, the neighborhood's de facto governing body, the Sunset Beach Community Assn., raised more than $150,000 toward trying to incorporate Sunset. In August, though, the Huntington Beach City Council voted to annex the land, which the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission put under Huntington's control in July 2009.

The commission approved Huntington's annexation application in December, but by that time the community was embroiled in another dispute over taxes. A group of Huntington residents had threatened litigation if Sunset was annexed without having to pay the same taxes as the rest of the city, and in November, City Atty. Jennifer McGrath declared that Sunset residents would have to shoulder the additional costs.

A newly formed residents group, the Citizen's Assn. of Sunset Beach, filed a lawsuit in December, claiming the city and county could not go through with the annexation unless Sunset residents were allowed to vote on taxes.

The year brought at least two other noteworthy developments for Sunset. In December, Calvary Chapel of the Harbour, believed to be the only church in Sunset's history, moved to a new facility in Huntington Beach. About the same time, the county announced that Sunset's medicinal marijuana dispensaries had until Jan. 7 to move out after a ban imposed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

2. Poseidon stays afloat

A $350-million seawater desalination plant to be built in Huntington Beach was given the green light by the city four years after the City Council originally approved the project.

Poseidon Resources received approval from the city in September to build a plant that could provide Orange County with 50 million gallons of fresh water a day. The project only needs to gain a Coastal Development Permit from the California Coastal Commission and make it through an appeal of the city's approval.

The appeal to the Coastal Commission was filed by environmental groups and others to stop the plant. The commission found the appeal to have merit and is slated to hold a public hearing on the issue.

The plant, which is expected to be built in the southeast portion of town at Newland Street and Edison Avenue, could be in operation by 2014.

The project has been in the pipeline since 2006 and caused contention in the environmental community and to some living in Southern Huntington Beach. Opponents of the project believe it will damage sea life and be a source of noise pollution for residents.

3. Senior center a go — again

In the latest twist in the ongoing battle over Huntington Beach's new senior center, an appeals judge in December overturned part of an earlier court ruling that prevented construction on the project in Huntington Central Park.

As far as McGrath was concerned, the ruling amounted to a green light for the city to proceed, although, because the judge overturned the ruling on technicalities, at least one opponent called the issue far from over.

Voters approved plans in 2006 to build a 45,000-square-foot center on a 5-acre section of the park between the Shipley Nature Center and the disc golf course. The center is meant to replace the Michael E. Rodgers Seniors' Center at 1718 Orange Ave., which many view as antiquated and too small for the senior population.

An Orange County Superior Court judge, though, ruled in September 2009 that the project violated the city's general plan, state environmental laws and a state act. In its December ruling, the appeals court agreed that the city violated its general plan and state law by not adequately looking at alternative locations in its environmental impact report, but overturned the ruling that the city could not use funds from the stalled Pacific City project to build the center, because the group that filed the complaints had failed to meet deadline.

4. Out-of-town drivers spared

The City Council voted to stick out-of-town drivers with the bill for emergency services if they caused an accident in the city until the new fee earned Surf City some not-so-flattering national attention.

The council approved an ordinance in August that holds visitors responsible for emergency costs and was expected to generate $100,000 in revenue for the city.

The ordinance allowed the city to bill non-residents for emergency costs for car accidents or fires, or vehicle extractions. It also gave the city the power to be reimbursed for emergency costs by companies for any pipeline or power line incident.

The council repealed the section pertaining to car accidents in September at the request of now Mayor Pro Tem Don Hansen after "significant commentary and heart burn." Hansen said at the time he hadn't considered the number of non-resident employees who work in the city, and that, combined with all the negative press nationally, made him reconsider.

"In hindsight now, the impact to the employees, and to our reputation, goes too far," he said.

5. Bell scandal touches Surf City

The tiny, working-class city of Bell, tucked in south Los Angeles County, may seem a world removed from Huntington Beach. But the taxpayer scandal that broke in Bell this year had a local connection: former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who came under investigation after the Los Angeles Times reported that he earned nearly $800,000 annually, was arrested at his Huntington Beach home Sept. 21.

The 56-year-old Rizzo was charged with 53 counts of conflict of interest and misappropriating $5.5 million in city funds. Less than a month after he was led away in handcuffs, neighbors woke to find his house vandalized and toilet-papered.

It wasn't Rizzo's first brush with the law in Huntington Beach this year. In March, he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving after he crashed into a residential mailbox. Officials said his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. Rizzo pleaded guilty to drunk driving in August and was sentenced to nine months in an alcohol awareness program and 10 days of community service.

6. DUI suspects online?

Huntington Beach caught the national spotlight when it considered posting names of DUI arrestees online and on Facebook, but neither plan has come to fruition.

A Police Department report over the summer outlined the possibility of posting the names of drinking and driving arrestees on its website as part of its stepped-up strategy to address DUIs, but the idea never got off the ground.

When the Police Department launched its Facebook and Twitter sites in November, Councilman Devin Dwyer asked the police chief to look into posting the names of those arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving on the social media sites. Dwyer said at the time he liked the idea of public shaming.

The issue is expected to come up again in January.

7. KOCE ready for region

Since 1972, KOCE-TV has been a fixture on the Golden West College campus, broadcasting telecourses for students, Orange County-themed news programs and PBS staples. Late this year, though, the station made three major announcements: As of Jan. 1, it will replace Los Angeles-based KCET as the full-service PBS station for Southern California; it will change its name to PBS SoCal; and by mid-2011, it plans to move its offices and studio to 3080 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa.

The station, led by President and Chief Executive Mel Rogers, will provide public programming to Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino counties and the city of Santa Barbara. Local-themed programs such as "Real Orange" and "Inside OC with Rick Reiff" will join "NewsHour," "Tavis Smiley," "American Masters" and other national favorites. Still, Rogers said, no Orange County shows would be cut.

"We're not going to start becoming the station that ignores Orange County," he said. "That's never going to happen."

8. A crush for council

The Huntington Beach City Council race offered four open seats this year, with Joe Carchio the lone incumbent and council members Cathy Green, Jill Hardy and Gil Coerper termed out. With that many positions available, Surf City saw its biggest candidate turnout in recent years, as 21 challengers — ranging from planning commissioners to small business owners to an LAPD sergeant to an 18-year-old Edison High School graduate — entered the fray.

In the end, Carchio won reelection, while former Mayor Connie Boardman, longtime Huntington Beach Union High School District Trustee Matthew Harper and former Planning and Public Works Commissioner Joe Shaw took the other three seats. The new members were sworn in Dec. 6.

Fountain Valley saw incumbent John Collins winning reelection while two other incumbents, Cheryl Brothers and Guy Carrozzo, lost to challengers Mark McCurdy and Michael Vo. The new members took office Dec. 7.

9. Officer fired, set for trial

A Huntington Beach police officer put on leave after being charged with 20 felony counts was fired and began the court process this year.

James Roberts III, 34, was fired April 15 after being on paid administrative leave after his September 2009 arrest. Roberts pleaded not guilty to 20 criminal charges, including rape and sodomy, and went through a preliminary hearing at the end of August.

The Orange County Superior Court judge allowed the charges to go to trial, which is expected to happen Feb. 14. His ex-wife and alleged mistress filed lawsuits against the city accusing officials of covering up Roberts' behavior and allowing it to continue.

10. Alcala sentenced to death

Serial killer Rodney Alcala, who kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old Huntington Beach girl in 1979, was sentenced to death in April for the third time.

Alcala, 66, was found guilty of the murder of Robin Samsoe and four Los Angeles women in the 1970s and sentenced to death in March. This was the third time he was found guilty for Robin's murder and the first time for the four women.

DNA evidence linking Alcala to the Los Angeles cases wasn't uncovered until after the convictions related to Robin were overturned twice on appeal.

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