A strapped King County wants the unincorporated community to affiliate with Seattle or Burien, but many residents would prefer neither.

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One sunny day last week, two neighbors stood by the side of the road, tossing rumors back and forth.

To their north was Seattle. To their south was Burien. At some point, one of these cities would likely extend its boundaries and absorb their street. And Max Clark, 76, was convinced: If Burien took over, that government would be all up in his business.

Patrick Robinson, 49, could not have disagreed more. Talk about rules raining down, he said — take a look at what Seattle would do.

“Wait ’til you got mandatory garbage out here,” Robinson teased his neighbor of 25 years. “They’re going to be sniffing through, making sure you recycle.”

For years, a battle has been brewing between Seattle and Burien over which city will annex this six-mile stretch of unincorporated land. No one has asked the 33,000 people of North Highline to vote on the matter yet. And depending on which diner you sit in, which street you drive down, which store you shop at, residents are divided. But then, North Highline itself is a mix of cultures and classes, from manicured lawns by the Sound to small businesses in the heart of White Center.

King County has been trying to unload North Highline and other large urban unincorporated areas onto cities for more than a decade, citing the high cost of providing quality services to neighborhoods without much commercial tax base. But only two communities have sealed a deal, annexing into Auburn and Renton. The rest are stirring controversy, with cities fighting over their fate, and residents speculating about what belonging to a city would be like.

The good people of North Highline have been polled before. And they have said, for the most part, that they’d really rather not be bothered. But the county is dead set on getting these areas annexed, in keeping with the Growth Management Act, which encourages counties to provide regional and rural services, and cities to take on urban areas.

So Burien and Seattle have stepped forward and said they’d do their part. Each city described a kinship with North Highline anyway.

The residents themselves suspect other motives — more tax money for Seattle, so it can go spend on projects, like the Monorail, that never come to be. More people for Burien, so the city can present itself as a regional player.

Kurt Triplett, chief of staff for the county executive, said he doesn’t care which city annexes what and why — just as long as somebody, somewhere, does. The county faces a $60 million budget deficit this year, and serious cuts in services are on the way.

“We are so far beyond preferences,” he said.

Burien makes a move

Burien’s City Council made a bold move last month, voting to pursue a jagged piece of North Highline with 14,300 residents, two fire stations, one library branch and a golf course. City Manager Mike Martin said the city couldn’t afford to take all of North Highline, and nearly double its population — even with help from a state law that directs a sliver of the sales tax to small cities that annex.

And it was time for the city to make a decision.

“There’s just such pent-up anticipation around this issue,” he said. “It hangs over everything we do.”

The county described Burien’s move as a good first step. But Triplett wants to know what the county’s supposed to do with the rest of North Highline. In a letter, he pushed Burien for some kind of decision, to either annex the rest, or support Seattle’s effort to do so.

In the past, Burien has bristled at the idea of Seattle getting the same sliver of the sales tax suburban cities get for annexation; if Seattle were included in the state law, under the current formula, it would get more money than Burien.

Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said he’s all for equity. Just as long as everyone recognizes that Seattle provides a higher, and hence more costly, level of service — and that White Center, and other areas Burien left out of its proposal, have more challenges than other parts of North Highline.

And so the conversation continues.

“You’ve got to spend the time, work through the process, work through the frustration, so you can do it right,” Ceis said.

Residents will weigh in

If all goes according to plan, residents will get their chance next winter to decide whether they want to belong to Burien. It is not a lock: Cities have been rejected before. Federal Way last August by the thousands. Auburn this spring by a couple of dozen.

There is no law that requires them to go.

But Barbara Peters, chair of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council, is optimistic.

A few years ago, surveys suggested a preference for Burien, she said, and the council recommended annexation. To some, it’s the more attentive, accessible city.

“Burien has, I think, the smaller-town atmosphere,” Peters said. “I just think it fits us better.”

Others argue Seattle has the diverse population, and the intensive services to complement the area — not to mention the cachet to make property values soar.

In a letter to Burien’s City Council, David Feinberg made his feelings clear.

“You have a very nice city, but please leave me out of it,” he said.

What Clancy Bale would like is for someone to just resolve this thing.

Sitting at a diner the other day, he’d had enough of cities weighing options and trying to figure out what residents might want. He described the strategy as: “Let’s dangle the carrot out there for a while, and see which way you move.”

One thing everyone can agree on: Annexation is complicated, a tangle of issues around land use, emergency services and utilities, with plenty of politics mixed in.

Both Seattle and Burien have reached out, trying to educate residents on what each city would give and take. But for some people living in limbo, annexation is as much about gut feeling as it is about fact.

Standing outside her home near the Rainier Golf and Country Club, Carol Sweet’s gut feeling told her one thing.

“They’re both horrible,” she said.

Sweet prefers the county — prompt police service, reasonable rules.

Let the cities bicker as long as they want. She’ll be here, on this nicely paved road, with her nicely cut lawn, living the county life, just as long as she can.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com