Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 21st 2017

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Citizens Protest Beach Ownership

By Duwayne Escobedo

A decades-old fight over eliminating property leases to Santa Rosa Island residents and allowing them ownership, instead, is stirring up public debate once again.

County commissioners, state lawmakers and elected U.S. House and U.S. Senate politicians have created a bill that settles the dispute once and for all. It would grant beach leaseholders ownership of land that the federal government gave to Escambia County in 1947 to lease — no strings attached.

Bill H.R. 2370, the “Escambia County Land Conveyance Act,” passed its first test June 27 when the House Committee on Natural Resources favorably reported on it.

To elected officials, such as Florida’s first congressional district representative Matt Gaetz, who is spearheading the effort, the proposed federal law is nothing more than a tax issue. It would make payments fairer for beach landowners. Today, they must pay both property taxes to Escambia and Santa Rosa counties on improvements to the barrier island parcels high courts have consistently ruled and lease fees that range from $100 a year to more than $1,000 a year.

That’s not fair, Gaetz has argued.

In a recent radio interview with Inweekly publisher Rick Outzen on “Pensacola Speaks” on News Talk 1370 WCOA, the congressman said: “…if we convert from a leasehold interest, which is what those folks have now, to a fee simple title interest, then they won’t have to continue to do both. They will simply make a contribution through their property taxes that will be the same as anyone else in Northwest Florida. So that’s really what’s important to folks there is to get to a predictable, equitable system and again this has been something that’s kind of flummoxed policymakers in our community since the early ‘90s.”

Despite guarantees in the House bill and verbally from lawmakers that the character of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach will remain the same family-oriented places, some Escambia County residents beg to differ. Opponents see land barons developing high-rises galore in the barrier island’s future.

Cheryl Poister, wearing an aqua armband on her right arm along with other protesters at a recent Escambia County Commission public forum, said: “I do not want to see our beaches privately owned. Money and greed will destroy everything that makes this the last beautiful beach in Florida.”

The proposed bill has a clause that would require Escambia County to preserve the areas of the conveyed monument land that are dedicated to conservation, preservation, public recreation access, and public parking.

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV clarified that the federal legislation change would be optional for the counties to implement and people would still have access to public beaches, even if private investors did come in years down the road.

Robinson and Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Rob Williamson worked together on crafting the House bill for Gaetz that also officially transfers ownership of Navarre Beach to Santa Rosa County. In the past, the issue has led to knock-down-drag-out fights between the two neighboring counties’ elected officials.

“The issue at hand is only to transfer properties that are currently under lease,” Robinson explained. “The people can still buy and sell leases on Pensacola Beach. And they can also still develop the land.”

Gaetz expressed optimism about the bill that has failed several times in the past. He said Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio plans to work quickly to pass the act on the Senate side and get it to President Donald Trump to sign.

Gaetz said he and Rubio have received assurances from Florida’s senior senator, Bill Nelson, that he will not block the bill. In the past, Nelson has attached an amendment forbidding the re-cutting of the Navarre Pass, which effectively killed the legislation. The pass has remained closed, after being open a few months in 1965, when the fury of Hurricane Betsy filled it with sand.

“Getting the Department of the Interior onboard, being able to work with the Trump administration, which has been great, they’re always looking for a way to get to yes on things to help a community,” Gaetz said, adding, “And then having Senator Bill Nelson kind of change his mind and now agree to support this legislation for the benefit of those folks, it really has made all the difference and we’re looking forward to getting it done.”

That’s not good news to Dianne Krumel, who heads the Escambia County Democratic Women’s Club. She told a story about how she and seven others partnered to buy property at Perdido Key in the early 1980s when a big developer eventually came along and “choked the life out of me” to get her to sell her stake, which Krumel did.

“I’ve lived this previously,” Krumel said. “It’s the beginning of the end of Pensacola Beach. I’m begging them not to privatize our beach. This is my new crusade.”

She and her husband, Barry Goodson, argued that the move is a land grab that will take away the ability of Escambia County residents and others the public access to the beach. Private beach owners have fought public access along with other parts of Northwest Florida’s coastline over the years, they pointed out.

“This will go the direction of corporate owners and not go the direction it’s supposed to go, and that is the people,” Goodson said. “Most people of Escambia County don’t know what’s going on. All the citizens should have a voice in this. This is a big deal.”

The barrier island has seen tremendous change since 1947 when the federal government turned it over to Escambia County to govern. Back then, the county advertised that people could buy tax-free land on Santa Rosa Island in its effort to populate the beach and attract tourists.

Today, the population is about 2,800, according to U.S. Census data. Plus, high-rise condos and hotels that now dot the beach helped to generate about $10.2 million in Tourist Development Tax collections in 2016 and visitor spending reached $787 million last year, Visit Pensacola reported.

But protesters expressed that Pensacola Beach would turn into a vacation for the rich, filled with condos and private beaches for tourists only.

“Pensacola Beach was given to the citizens of Escambia by legislation passed in 1947,” Poister asserted. “That is my entire lifetime. It is my understanding that many of the homeowners on the beach want to own, not lease their property. If legislation is changed and these people do get control over their property, there will be changes to the beach for the worst. They will sell their property to the highest bidder of developers and the next thing you know we’ll have a sister city of Destin on Pensacola Beach.”

She added, “It seems like it’s always money before people, money before the environment.”