Something that keeps Billings Police Chief Rich St. John up at night is “the fear that we will have a 911 call and we’ll have nobody to send, or it takes me 10 minutes to get there,” he said, with typical response times at about three minutes. “We don’t need someone driving 100 miles an hour across town, because when we do, nothing good is going to come of it.”
In order to help the chief sleep peacefully — along the heads for other departments, including the Fire Department, Planning, Public Works, Planning, MET Transit, county officials and others — the city council each spring approves a new annexation map.
It’s a color-coded guide — red for go ahead, orange for possible long-range expansion, white for no thanks — marking the spots where department heads believe they can most readily provide adequate city services and infrastructure, from water, sewer and roads to parks and, in many cases, bus service.
Spread too thin?
Some city council members have expressed concern during recent annexation hearings that city boundaries are being pushed ahead of the city’s ability to provide needed services. Staff members say they sometimes share their concerns.
“As the city expands — and if personnel doesn’t expand — you are looking at longer response times,” said Fire Chief Paul Dextras. Firefighters strive to answer their calls within 4 ½ to 5 minutes, he said.
“There is a cost to doing business” farther and farther from the city’s core, Dextras said, “and often that’s in longer response times.”
Dave Mumford, Billings’ public works director, said that city, county and school district interests are “well represented” around the table during the annexation committee’s monthly meetings.
“We get the opinions that are needed,” he said. “What may be missing in some instances is that there really isn’t a place for public input.”
“I’m not sure that would lead to more annexation,” he said, “but it might tweak what we are building and where we are not building.”
Infrastructure considerations, including roads, water and sewer, are at least as important in expansion considerations as police and fire response times.
“We don’t just say, ‘We can get water there, so you can have it,’” Mumford said. “We look at the city’s growth plan and we do a master plan to ensure that water and sewer will be available. We want to take logical steps out, not the big leaps that have occurred in the past.”
City officials cite the Briarwood and Ironwood annexations, among others, as indicators that the annexation process has, in years past, gotten out ahead of itself.
“There was a time a few years back where things were a little loose and the expectations weren’t always clear from a developer’s standpoint,” said Dennis Randall, a vice president with Sanderson Stewart who has conducted a number of urban planning studies for developers. “But now I think there is more clarity. People doing their due diligence — you can give them a pretty good idea and a pretty good timeline under the current system.”
One of the downsides, he said, is that the process can be time-consuming.
“If you are in the orange or in the white, it’ll be a couple of years before you will know if you are eligible for annexation,” Randall said. “Time can kill deals, and that kind of wait can be a real deal-killer. But they are talking about tightening up the process even more, and at a minimum that will clarify things for developers.”
Residents drive the process
Planning and Community Services Director Wyeth Friday called the process “very much property owner-driven. We are not going to come out and annex you.”
That has resulted in sporadic color blotches on the map. The Highlands Golf Course is well within city limits, but it’s in the red status because state law prohibits annexing a golf course. The same is true for industrial use.
Property owners in the orange who want to be considered for red status must complete an urban planning study, which is submitted to the committee in the fall and is an undertaking, Friday said, "that can't be completed in a week."
The timing is key, Friday said, because map amendments are considered at the same time the city is updating its Capital Improvement Plan, a five-year guide of where and when infrastructure improvements are planned.
Committee meetings generally wrap up in the spring, when Friday reports to the city council, which must approve the map and any annexation policy changes.
One change the committee is proposing is to allow developers to go straight from white to red — skipping the orange, long-term stage — if the developer can produce an urban planning study. Developers trying to bring in land west of the Copper Ridge subdivision are proposing to do just that.
A vexing concern
Another conundrum that Friday’s not sure how to solve is property owners in the red who sit on their property, largely undeveloped, for many years. Some such large red blotches are splashed across the West End.
“How do we want to drive the train to develop the red areas?” Friday asked. “How might that look going forward?”
In addition, city council members have asked the committee to further refine the process by prioritizing which red tracts are most likely to be annexed early on, and which ones might have to wait a few years.
“It is a big deal that people are able to petition and get into the city,” he said. “That is a property value element to them.”