On a recent afternoon, Quinton King stood in his front yard in Bozeman’s core and watched with a grin as a kid propped on bike handlebars laughed while his dad steered through the grass at the yard’s edge.

King’s neighborhood is straddled by the hum of Durston Road and West Babcock Street. The homes off Western Drive feel separate from newer development. There aren’t any sidewalks or street lamps. Trees that have been around longer than many of its residents canopy yards.

“It gives you this illusion, you still feel like you’re kind of in the country, not in the midst of a metropolitan area,” King said.

His neighbor Katie Seipel put it another way.

“Anybody who drives through recognizes it’s a distinct place in the western portion of the city,” she said. “We want to preserve that if we can.”

Part of the reason the neighborhood is distinct is because it’s not part of the city. It’s county land fully encircled by Bozeman.

Historically, the city of Bozeman’s policy around those pockets has been hands off. If someone wants to join the city and hook up to city services, they can.

Bozeman officials are researching a policy that would allow for city-initiated annexations. In other words, a way to bring “county islands” into Bozeman city limits whether or not its residents agree. Officials have said that would create more consistency in city infrastructure and services.

Seipel said most of her neighbors have a different take on whether annexation is good, bad or in between. But there are common concerns: what price it could come with to get up to city codes, whether the city will share that bill and whether it would change the face of their neighborhood.

The city has identified 33 pockets of land like Western Drive.

City Manager Andrea Surratt said they’re far from the details of how policy changes could play out.

Before a city-provoked annexation is possible, Bozeman officials have to adopt new annexation policies. City staff is working on a draft of those changes now, which they plan to present to city commissioners sometime this fall.

If commissioners approve the changes, staff would begin work on the next stage — a plan to bring county land into Bozeman and pockets to prioritize. That would likely go before the commission sometime in 2020.

“When someone says, ‘Tell me what this is going to mean for my property,’ until we create an extension of services plan and go parcel by parcel through that, we don’t know what it means,” Surratt said.

She said city-led annexation is a route Montana law allows, although Bozeman policy has lagged behind.

Bozeman’s strategic plan, adopted last year, lists annexation of “county islands” among its top priorities.

“I think it’s about making sure that we have tax fairness,” Surratt said. “We have areas that are using city services that are not paying for them.”

Jon Henderson, Bozeman’s strategic services director, said while people throughout city departments are drafting a potential policy change, another cohort is researching areas that could be annexed. They’re collecting details like how often police or fire crews respond to an area, what utilities are already there and whether there are issues of access or transportation.

There are more than 825 acres of county pockets in Bozeman. They vary from neighborhoods to fields.

Henderson said understanding those inholdings and how they play into Bozeman’s makeup is important.

On a recent afternoon in City Hall, Henderson pulled up a map of Bozeman and zoomed into a grouping of homes off Fowler Avenue. He pointed to sidewalks along the busy street that dropped off in front of county homes.

“It’s another fairness issue of, ‘Hey, I need to be able to get to the park that I enjoy and I want that path to be safe,’” Henderson said. “When we talk about our ability to operate and maintain utilities in a consistent way, have a transportation model that’s functional, this will really benefit the entire community.”

What’s fair is the same question on the minds of the people watching for what annexation could mean for their home.

In April, Seipel was among those who delivered a letter to city commissioners signed by roughly 70 residents of Western Drive and 25th Avenue asking the city to include their voice in the process.

City officials have said as they collect more information, they’ll reach out to people in the area and go through the typical public process. Seipel said that’s not early enough in the process.

“It’s a complex issue, and everybody I’ve talked to has different concerns about it,” Seipel said. “Besides the economics and the character issue is the fact the city is treating us, who are the primary stakeholders in this situation, as spectators.”

Seipel said she thinks annexation could come with benefits. She likes the idea of minimal street improvements to make it safer for her three kids to play in front of the house.

But she said the city’s argument of tax fairness doesn’t line up. She said as Bozeman has grown around the neighborhood, their street — which the county residents pay to pave and plow — has become a cut through for Bozeman residents.

King said he’s also not against annexation.

“I respect the city’s right to do it,” King said. “But if you’re going to take control, it just seems like the majority of the burden on that transition, the cost, should fall on the one making the decision.”

He said his family bought that home years ago because it’s what they could afford to live near their work. They’re worried residents on county land will have to pay the entire cost to upgrade streets and utilities to meet city codes — upgrades that for the moment, they could do without.

“We want to raise our kids here. I’d love this to be the place grandkids come to visit,” he said. “It just feels like there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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