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O.C. Push for Annexation Meets Consternation

County officials want the cities to absorb unincorporated tracts. But, as targeted residents near La Habra say, there's a price to be paid.

March 21, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

When Orange County officials decided several years ago that they wanted to give up control of dozens of unincorporated islands to adjacent cities, they underestimated people like Jim W. Smith.

A retired pipe fitter, Smith, 62, is an outspoken critic of annexation, having lived peacefully in his ranch-style home for 33 years. But his neighborhood of clean streets and large lots is targeted for annexation to La Habra, a city of 60,000 in northern Orange County.

"They want us to be a part of the city, and that means we would have to pay for sewer hookups, street lights, even change our addresses," said Smith, who uses a septic tank. "I'm against it, pure and simple."

And not only are many of his neighbors dead set against the proposal, but recently, residents in several larger county islands near western Anaheim and Yorba Linda have successfully fought annexation.

County governments statewide have been looking to annexations as a way of trimming services and costs in areas surrounded by cities. By annexing county islands, municipalities can offer more efficient -- and less confusing -- services.

In a county pocket near Anaheim, for example, sheriff's deputies have to swing through several miles of the city before they enter the unincorporated areas. Neighbors across the street rely on city police.

So far, county islands near Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Garden Grove have moved closer to annexation. But many more remain, from the working-class district of El Modena, surrounded by Orange, to such upscale communities as Rossmoor and Orange Park Acres.

Of the 3 million people in the county, 77,176 live in 38 county pockets, with as few as 31 residents and as many as 24,300, in North Tustin.

Near La Habra, many of the roughly 1,500 county residents targeted for annexation are like Smith, retired and living on fixed incomes. They have spent years sprucing up gardens, putting in walkways and preparing for their sunset years. If the proposal succeeds, he and his neighbors, some of them scattered in a dozen or so islands, will be hit hard in the pocketbook.

The city has sent letters notifying them that it would cost $5,000 to $30,000 for a sewer hookup, depending on their homes' distance from the nearest sewer main. They may also be taxed for street lights and libraries, and could lose parts of their frontyards for sidewalks.

"Where am I going to get that kind of money?" Smith said. "Take out a loan?"

Smith's neighbor, Robert Canales, 72, who worked in sheet metal most of his life, said he paid his bills on time but worried about the future.

"As it is, we're just now making it with all the other bills," Canales said. "We get police services from La Habra; they're fine. Fire, also La Habra. Why should we pay anything?"

County Supervisor Chris Norby, whose district includes La Habra, said he believed that in the long run, losing the islands made good government sense.

But he and La Habra City Council members are seeking a fair solution.

"Look, no areas will be forced on anyone," Norby said. "But it is very difficult for the county to continue to provide services in those islands, and many of the county residents are already enjoying the use of the city library and city parks."

In recent years, cities and counties have quietly pushed for laws streamlining the annexation process. A state law passed in 2000 allows city councils to annex areas up to 150 acres -- the previous limit was 75 acres -- without a vote by residents.

The law was needed to annex tiny unincorporated parcels throughout the state that made little, if any, governmental sense, said Dan Carrigg, legislative director for the League of California Cities, one of the groups that pushed for the law.

The La Habra council has indicated that it may not use the legislation to annex the county islands by council vote, said Councilman Steve Anderson, not wanting to force residents.

At several town hall meetings, most residents told city staffers and elected officials they wished to remain in the county. The city is waiting for results of a mail survey, asking island residents whether they favor annexation, Anderson said.

"We're going to use that survey as an 'annexation vote,' " he said.

The county has offered $2.5 million to the city, representing a variety of road funds, property taxes and park money the county collects from the 1,500 unincorporated residents. Included is grant money for sewer hookups, but it is unknown how many residents would be eligible for that, a city spokeswoman said.

Anderson is also chairman of the Orange County Sanitation District, the county's largest sanitation agency, serving 670,000 homes. About 1,900 are on septic systems.

"Some septic systems work great," Anderson said, but ultimately they age and crack, and can cause groundwater contamination.

Environmental agencies may eventually put greater restrictions on septic tank users, he said. If the tanks leak, the homeowner would be held responsible for the hazard to groundwater.

Norby hopes residents in the county's islands get that message. Properties hooked to sewer systems also have more value, he notes, and prospective buyers will not face stricter environmental concerns.

"Septic tanks are not a long-term solution for anybody." Norby said. "These annexation proposals allow an opportunity to connect to the city sewer and get help with some expense and spread it out over a long term."

For Smith, his septic system works fine. The issue for him isn't the environment but government's heavy hand forcing residents to spend more money.

"I don't think they knew or understood what we face," he said.

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