* This article was altered on March 6, 2011.
Entering Sunset Beach—a mile-long, blink-and-you'll-miss-it enclave along Pacific Coast Highway—is like stumbling upon another era, one in which people go by Rotten Ron, Shorty Sam and Hotbass Bob; in which mail gets picked up at the post office because there's no home delivery; in which shoes are optional.
All those who live and play in this 85-acre community of about 1,300 know one thing: There ain't no place like it.
PHOTO ESSAY: With Huntington Beach's attempted annexation of Sunset Beach pending, we take a closer look at what residents of OC's last unincorporated beach community are trying to preserve.
MAP: So what exactly constitutes Sunset Beach?
SLIDESHOW: Behind-the-scenes and outtakes from in and around Sunset Beach.
Against a backdrop of calming ocean waves, a band plays honky-tonk and blues at the memorabilia-choked Mother's Tavern, diners break apart crab legs at the handful of nautical-themed seafood joints, and a couple contorts into a pretzel-like yoga position on the town-long greenbelt.
"It's a real close-knit community," says Joy Monaghan, a bartender at the ivy-covered Turcs Cocktails, a scruffy tiki bar next to the historic water tower. "We all get together for events such as ArtFest, the Pancake Breakfast and the Firemen's Ball. We'd like to preserve that small-town charm. We like Sunset Beach the way it is."
But residents know the area may soon disappear, at least on official maps.
In an effort to reduce the number of so-called islands (unincorporated pockets of land), county supervisors have long wanted neighboring Huntington Beach to absorb Sunset. State law says that if an area is less than 150 acres, it may be annexed without the consent of its people—that's how Surf City lapped up Sunset Heights, Sunset Harbor and other chunks of nearby land years before. Last year, Huntington Beach applied to annex Sunset Beach, a move that would bring the city $624,000 in new taxpayer dollars, according to a study by a private consulting firm. The application received the approval of the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a state-mandated bureau that oversees boundary changes.
But in December, the Citizen's Association of Sunset Beach, a residents' group determined to keep the neighborhood self-contained, filed a lawsuit urging LAFCO to hold off on officially recording the annexation. The group argued that under law, a community has a right to vote on annexation if new taxes are imposed, and Huntington Beach plans to charge Sunset Beach residents a utility users' tax.
"This is a clear example of taxation without representation," says Diana Dodson, vice president of the association, who has lived in Sunset Beach for nearly 20 years. "We just want to have a choice in our destiny."
Huntington Beach officials, however, say the tax isn't new—it will simply be extended to the city's new borders. The legal wrangling continues; the next court date has not been set.
Many in Sunset Beach fear the community would get lost in the bigger city if the annexation becomes official. Throughout its 106-year history, the roughly north-south strip has maintained its eclectic identity, escaping tourist herds, reality-show cameras and Orange County developers with a penchant for beige stucco.
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"Over there [in Huntington Beach], it's tattoos and spiky hair. Here, it's sandy feet and sunburns," says Luis Carrasco, 48, part of a local blues duo who play regularly at Mother's. "None of us leave this place. It's like family. It's like our living room."
For now, Sunset Beach remains Sunset Beach, one of the last coastal communities in Orange County spared the scourge of gentrification, and residents are hoping it will stay that way.
"It's far from being over," Dodson says.