Stacy Londo can see the annexation of Sunset Beach through two sets of eyes.
One is that of a concerned resident who wants to preserve the pace of life in her tranquil seaside neighborhood.
The other is a child's.
Londo, who has lived in Sunset for 13 years, shares some of her neighbors' wariness about the area's August annexation by Huntington Beach. Like them, she worries that the long-unincorporated strip of Orange County will lose its offbeat vibe, and that the city may implement parking meters and other changes.
When she takes her 3-year-old son to the community playground by the beach, though, Londo can't deny that annexation has brought a few welcome changes. In this case, they're material ones: After Huntington took over Sunset, its Public Works Department removed the corroded equipment and put in new swings, a slide and more.
"At the end of the day, we're excited to get it upgraded," Londo said on a recent Monday as her son raced around the sand.
It has now been eight months since an Orange County Superior Court judge officially placed Sunset under Huntington's control. In the two years before the decision, some in Sunset bitterly fought the move and even attempted to turn the neighborhood into its own city. An appeal of the annexation is winding its way through court.
But even as some Sunset residents fight the new taxes they pay every month, many find themselves in a position similar to Londo's — finding the changes to the neighborhood minimal and, in some cases, welcome.
The Sunset Beach Community Assn., which served as the area's de facto governing body before the annexation, still holds regular meetings, often with Huntington officials in attendance. The city has a committee of its own to deal with Sunset issues.
Some of the area's roughly 1,200 residents say the city maintains greenery better than the county and that Huntington police respond more quickly than the county sheriff's deputies.
A walk through the neighborhood, though, still reveals "No on Sunset annexation" signs in windows and a "Help save Sunset Beach" banner on the side of a popular tavern. The bulletin board outside the post office features anti-annexation literature alongside notices from the city and women's club.
"The whole community is absolutely divided," said Janese Johnsen, a 10-year resident and among those who opposed the annexation.
A fistful of dollars
The main issue that has divided Sunset for the last year and a half appears not on the playground or the beach, but in a few digits on residents' monthly utility bills.
After Huntington voted to annex the community in 2010, officials believed Sunset residents wouldn't have to pay the same utility users tax as the rest of the city. In November 2010, though, they reexamined the law and declared that Sunset would be treated the same as the rest of Huntington.
The Citizen's Assn. of Sunset Beach, a newly formed nonprofit, filed a lawsuit a month later, demanding that the city and county negate the annexation or hold it until Sunset residents could vote on the taxes. Judge Frederick P. Horn ruled against the lawsuit in August, making the annexation official.
The citizens association, backed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., appealed. Huntington and the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, filed their response briefs in March. A court date has not yet been set.
Huntington's utility user tax adds 5% to Sunset residents' monthly bills for electricity, water, natural gas and cable service, plus 4.9% for telephone usage. The city also added a pension-related property tax override of $0.015 per $100 of assessed valuation, although city Finance Director Lori Ann Farrell said she did not believe Sunset residents have begun paying it yet.
Citizens association President Jack Markovitz admitted he doesn't personally know anyone who's had trouble making ends meet with the new taxes, but said they could pose problems for some.