Emotions ran high as the Huntington Beach City Council voted late Monday to annex neighboring Sunset Beach over the cries of residents who tried to block the decision in hopes of keeping the funky, unincorporated beach town independent.
The council voted 5 to 2 to direct city administrators to complete an application with the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to acquire Sunset Beach, the city's northern neighbor along Pacific Coast Highway. Mayor Cathy Green and Mayor Pro Tem Jill Hardy dissented.
Sunset could become part of Huntington as early as January.
"We know," Councilman Joe Carchio told the Sunset Beach residents who had gathered in Surf City's council chambers. "We see the handwriting on the wall. I think that we would do a great disservice to you guys if we didn't annex you to Huntington. We would have you guys wasting $130,000."
Sunset residents shouted down "no!" as Carchio spoke, stating they wanted the chance to try to form what would be Orange County's smallest city by population.
"I know you don't want to hear it and no matter what we say, it's not going to change your mind because you're so emotional about it," Carchio said.
The 85-acre unincorporated area of about 1,300 residents was placed under Huntington's sphere of influence about a year ago by LAFCO, which oversees the process of municipal boundary changes, in an effort to decrease the number of Orange County "islands," the generally small, unincorporated areas that were hard to serve.
Sunset Beach's hopes of incorporation are not financially feasible and to allow them to continue on the difficult process and spend $100,000 on top of the $30,000 or so already spent toward trying to become its own city would be irresponsible, the council said.
"We know at the end of the day, it means annexation either way," said Councilman Don Hansen.
A peer-commissioned review showed a 10% utility-users tax and installing parking meters — Sunset is one of a small number of beach towns to offer free parking — would be necessary to make Sunset incorporation feasible for a few years but would not work over time.
Sunset resident Diana Dodson said those numbers were based on a preliminary study and LAFCO, not the Huntington Beach City Council, should have been allowed to make the final decision.
"It's shocking that they would just determine the future and predict the future," Dodson said. "That's LAFCO's place to determine the feasibility."
Absorbing Sunset is expected to bring in about $444,000 from various sources including property, sales and hotel taxes, Deputy City Administrator Paul Emery said.
Sunset Beach residents, and a few Huntington Beach residents, packed the Council Chambers, spilling out into adjoining rooms.
Sunset residents are concerned about Huntington redeveloping their community and building it up and out, and that their 1,300 voices will get lost in Huntington's 201,000.
"We don't feel that we would be represented there," Greg Griffin, president of the Sunset Beach Community Assn., said in interview prior to the meeting. "We want to represent ourselves."
Huntington Beach's philosophy is much different than that of Sunset, and the community doesn't want big buildings, parking meters or more bars, other residents complained. The real issue though, is the people of Sunset Beach don't get to decide their own destiny, which goes against the principles on which the country was founded, said Renee Ellerbroeck, a former Sunset Beach resident who now lives in Huntington.
"What is really at issue today is whether or not the Huntington Beach City Council has the legal authority to decide the future of a community they do not govern," she said.
While the majority spoke against annexation, a handful of Sunset Beach residents spoke in favor of joining Huntington.
If Sunset were to incorporate separate from its bigger neighbor it would have to contract out most of its services, creating an unsustainable tax burden for residents, said Tim McCormack, vice president of the Sunset Beach Community Assn.
"While my heart says we would love to become our own city, my head says it is not possible," McCormack said.
Sunset will have to regroup and decide what its next step is, Griffin, the association president, said.
The community has raised more than $150,000 for the incorporation process and was prepared to submit the final $100,000 to begin the final comprehensive fiscal analysis.
While Sunset has started the incorporation process, LAFCO could not deny Huntington's application to annex, only amend it, said Carolyn Emery, who is overseeing the Sunset Beach process as an assistant executive officer with the agency.
Griffin has said the community could consider challenging the legality of automatically allowing Huntington to annex. It was unclear Monday night whether they would pursue a court challenge.
Nevertheless, a majority of residents have given up on remaining unincorporated, Griffin has said.
"We were part of the county for 105 years, and we were comfortable being a part of the county," he said.
Sunset previously turned to Seal Beach to annex it, but the Seal Beach City Council voted against taking over its neighbor. Since then, Sunset has been polling, raising money, sending out mailings and learning the ins-and-outs of the incorporation process.