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Controversy Looms

public beach rightsAs Pensacolians, we have a lot to be proud of. We have a fascinating, rich, and long-lasting history. The 1559 settlement attempts of Don Tristan de Luna y Arrellano put Pensacola on the map as the oldest attempted settlement in what is now the United States. We are the City of Five Flags. We are the Cradle of Naval Aviation. In addition to our history, we have some of the country’s most beautiful beaches. Indeed, the beaches of Pensacola and surrounding areas are awe-inspiring to locals and tourists alike. But controversy looms…

A 1946 law called for the portion of Santa Rosa Island under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior to be transferred to Escambia County. A deed was issued on January 15, 1947 in which the Santa Rosa National Monument was removed from the jurisdiction of the National Park Service; the land located on Santa Rosa Island was deeded to Escambia County. The deed stipulated that Escambia County would be given the authority to transfer property on Santa Rosa Island, but only in the form of leases. In other words, Escambia County was prohibited from issuing titles of ownership on the property. Over 70 years later, this legislation—which is still in effect—has caused a bit of controversy.

Having been given all rights to this land, Escambia County was required to ensure that the land would be used “for such purposes as it shall deem to be in the public interest” or be leased “to such persons and for such purposes as it shall deem to be in the public interest.” The agreement also stipulated that Escambia County could not convey the land back to the federal government, the State of Florida, or any other agency. Essentially, Pensacola Beach was given to the citizens of Escambia County.

In the 1950s, in an effort to promote revenue from tourism, Escambia County decided to develop Pensacola Beach. Since the land could not be sold, the county established the Santa Rosa Island Authority to oversee a series of 99-year lease agreements. Advertisements encouraging people to populate Pensacola Beach appeared in newspapers. The sales pitch? No property taxes! Since the property was not privately owned—rather, it was leased by the county—people could build on the beach tax-free.

As a result, heavy development ensued for decades, but in the 1980s, Escambia County began levying property taxes on the leased beach properties as a source of tax revenue. As one could imagine, people were not happy. Arguing that they should not have to pay property taxes on leased land, leaseholders filed lawsuit after lawsuit, many of which are still in contention today. Escambia County justifies its actions by maintaining that 99-year lease agreements are tantamount to land ownership deeds.

Since Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach are public-owned—Escambia County remains the sole landowner—unlike other beaches in Florida, waterfront access is largely unrestricted. Beach patrons are not thwarted from their sunny weekend ventures by gated beach entrances or “No Trespassing” signs.

In 2017, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach proposed a bill that would effectively undo the land lease stipulations of the 1946 agreement. The bill, which would allow Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach leaseholders to take ownership of their land, was endorsed by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Gaetz’s bill has bipartisan support of Florida senators, including Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson. If the Senate approves the bill, leaseholders would be permitted to exchange their 99-year leases for property deeds, reflecting ownership of the land. It would also effectively give local county governments control of development on these beach lands.

The Santa Rosa Island Authority fears that such legislation would primarily benefit big land developers and lead to high-rise condos inundating beach properties. Supporters of the legislation, conversely, argue that preservation land will be protected from such large-scale development. The most recent court decision indicates that taxes could be levied on certain beach properties, depending on the wording of their lease agreements. The right to tax, the court maintains, hinges on whether the lease renews automatically at the end of its term or if negotiations would be in order.

So, what lies in store for our beaches? Will the status quo be maintained? Will leaseholders become landowners? Will local citizens and tourists continue enjoying easy access to our beaches, or will we begin seeing the dreaded “No Trespassing” signs? Only time will tell. In the meantime, summer is right around the corner, so get out there and enjoy it! But remember, do yourself a favor—leave early. The traffic can be a nightmare!

Written By John Melvin
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