Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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The Fight for a Public Beach

By Jeremy Morrison

Who can lay claim to a grain of sand? On Pensacola Beach, it’s kind of complicated.

In 1947, the federal government deeded Santa Rosa Island to Escambia County, with the condition that it be used for the “public interest” and not resold, only leased. And while much of the island is subject to 99-year, recurring leases, it remains technically public to this day.

“Every single square inch of sand that is not federal belongs to the citizens of Escambia County,” said Dianne Krumel, president of Save Pensacola Beach.

For the past couple of years, Krumel has led a fight to have the public’s ownership of the beach codified. Last year, a non-binding referendum affirming such was placed on the ballot and subsequently passed.

Since that time, county leaders have worked with beach advocates to craft an official ordinance encapsulating the spirit of the referendum and thus codifying the public’s ownership of the beach. The Escambia County Commission has scheduled a public hearing on the new law for Sept. 5, with advocates still pushing for something with as much teeth as possible.

“We are willing to compromise,” Krumel told commissioners during a recent public meeting. “But this ordinance that you sent to the Santa Rosa Island Authority? Are you kidding me? They gutted it and added. It had nothing to do with what the people voted on.”

Cautiously Optimistic
Save Pensacola Beach was born out of opposition to a 2017 effort spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, (R-FL), to pass a federal law that would grant beach leaseholders ownership. Gaetz has since dropped the issue—known as fee simple—acknowledging it lacked public support.

“Fee simple is basically giving away for free property that is currently leased on the island,” Krumel said, describing the legislative move as an attempt to subvert the public in order to turn Pensacola Beach into a privatized “cash cow.” “Just ramming it through. They thought they could see the glowing light on the horizon.”

In response to this fee simple effort, Save Pensacola Beach gathered petitions in opposition, and they lobbied Sen. Bill Nelson to withdraw his support for the bill, an exercise that paid off and ultimately doomed the legislation. The group also pushed for a non-binding referendum to be placed on the 2018 ballot, which ended up strengthening their position.

“Immediately, we wanted to move into action to provide a layer of protection in an ordinance,” Krumel said.

Ushering the referendum into an ordinance has taken a while, with the back-and-forths with the SRIA and games of push-and-pull with the commissioners over language specifics.

“They’re just trying to wear us down,” Krumel said. “This should be an absolute no-brainer for the commissioners to respect the will of the people.”

When Krumel noticed that Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender was throwing a draft beach protection ordinance up for consideration, she was a little surprised. She thought her group of advocates was going to have more time to review the proposal.

“We didn’t even have time to react,” Krumel said. “We’re all, like, freaking out, because he promised us time to review the ordinance.”

The beach advocates showed up at the county wearing their matching yellow shirts of solidarity and engaged in a spirited discussion with the commissioners about their concerns, such as the absence of language contained in the referendum which prohibited the sale or leasing of currently unleased, protected portions of the island.

A week later, Krumel doesn’t sound much happier, though she does hesitantly describe her position as “cautiously optimistic” that the final draft of the ordinance will be up to snuff.

“We met with Bender yesterday,” she said. “We are still in the negotiating phase.”

We Want the Same Thing
Rolled out on a table in Commissioner Bender’s office is a map of Santa Rosa Island. It’s color-coded and denotes areas protected as conservation or preservation sites.

“This is Pensacola Beach as we know it,” Bender said, taking a step back and surveying the map. “You step back and say, ‘What are people worried about?’ They’re worried about turning into a Destin or a Panama City.”

Pensacola Beach’s neighbors to the east allow for private ownership on their beaches. To the west, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores in Alabama offer the same. Those locales have garnered reputations as overcrowded, overbuilt canyons of condominiums that block the public’s access to the beach.

In contrast, development on Pensacola Beach has exercised considerably more restraint. And people seem to like that landscape better.

“The referendum was a litmus test,” Bender pointed out. “Clearly, overwhelmingly, 80% of the people said, ‘We want Pensacola Beach to stay the way it is.’”

Looking up and down the beach on his map, the commissioner notes that there are only a few sites left that would be relevant for development. There’s some property next to Margaritaville and some by the Holiday Inn, then the two parcels available at Portofino.

“Other than that, the island is pretty much built out,” Bender said, noting that his proposed ordinance reaffirms a 4,128-unit building cap and requires majority votes for both the SRIA and county commission to increase it.

In addition to a building cap element, the most recent draft version contains language reaffirming the 1947 federal deed and also mandates majority votes from, again, the SRIA and commissioners to change the zoning of portions of the beach currently zoned as conservation or preservation.

“What we’re doing is we’re preserving the recreation, conservation and preservation areas, we’re reaffirming the residential building cap, and then we reaffirmed the 1947 deed,” the commissioner said. “I think that is a legal way to put the referendum into an ordinance that keeps the intent.”

Bender said he thought the Save Pensacola Beach camp seemed “hopeful” upon going over the revised draft.

“I think we all want the same thing,” the commissioner said.

People Call Us Crazy
Bender’s fellow commissioners generally appear supportive of his efforts to fashion the referendum into an ordinance. Following the public debate with beach advocates during an Aug. 15 meeting, they encouraged him to work toward a compromise on the ordinance.

But one commissioner was not supportive of the cause, instead lashing out at beach advocates and in particular at Krumel, whom he had previously lambasted on social media for acting like a member of “antifa”—shorthand for left-wing anti-fascists prone to civil disobedience—in her pursuit of a beach ordinance.

“It’s getting absurd. The antifa behavior is getting absurd,” Underhill said at the meeting. “Dianne, at some point, you’re going to have to trade in that yellow shirt for a black mask if you keep this up.”

Reflecting on the exchange, Krumel said she was as committed as ever to realizing a beach-protection ordinance, calling the mission “the hardest challenge of my life, ever.”

“Our team has no intentions of quitting now,” she said. “Everyone on our team is as committed as I am to see this through.”

Further, the beach activist said she’d like to eventually see state and federal legislation enshrining the protections outlined in last year’s referendum. She knows that’s a heavy lift.

“We have a wishlist,” Krumel said. “People call us crazy, but they called us crazy and thought we couldn’t kill SB 1073 either, and we did. So, you’re looking and talking to crazy right now.”

Insofar as the Sept. 5 public hearing, Krumel said she intends to fight for changes if the version of the ordinance that appears before the board isn’t to her liking. Between now and then, Save Pensacola Beach has scheduled a town hall for 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31 at the downtown public library to discuss the issue.

“Once it’s gone, you know, it’s gone,” Krumel explained her passion for trying to enshrine the public’s ownership of the beach into an ordinance. “That’s why I fight so hard.”