Judge promises rule in Sunset annexation

The fate of Huntington Beach's annexation of Sunset Beach is in the hands of a judge after attorneys for the city, a county commission and a residents' group squared off in court Thursday.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn promised to come back with a ruling after hearing arguments for and against the annexation of the seaside community. Horn did not give a time frame for when he would make his decision.

At the hearing, an attorney for the Citizen's Assn. of Sunset Beach argued that the annexation was unconstitutional because it would result in Sunset residents paying new taxes. Attorneys for the city and the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, argued that taxes and annexation were different issues and that the commission had followed protocol in approving the transaction.

"We followed the law," City Atty. Jennifer McGrath said after the hearing, in which attorney Holly O. Whatley argued on the city's behalf. "Now it's up to the judge to determine if he likes the law or not."

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

The city initially declared that because of the island annexation, Sunset residents would not be forced to pay new taxes. In November, though, the city declared that it had to charge Sunset the same taxes as the rest of Huntington.

LAFCO approved the city's application Dec. 8, prompting a lawsuit from the association. In January, Horn put the annexation on hold until the court could resolve the issue.

The group, led by President Jack Markovitz, has asked the court to issue a writ of mandate prohibiting the city and LAFCO from proceeding with annexation unless Sunset residents vote in favor of paying the new taxes.

"You cannot separate the tax issue from the annexation issue," attorney John McCarron said. "They go hand in hand."

The opposition, though, argued that the taxes Sunset residents would pay after annexation would not count as increased taxes because they were already in place in Huntington. LAFCO attorney Daniel S. Roberts added that Sunset met all the established criteria for an island annexation and that his group could not be held accountable for tax disputes.

"The issue of whether or not the taxes should or could be imposed is an issue between the petitioners and the city," he said before the hearing. "LAFCO doesn't tax anybody. It doesn't approve the taxes."

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