A bill which would allow leaseholders on Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach to gain fee simple titles to their property is one step closer to becoming law after winning approval in the U.S. House on Wednesday.
The House passed HR 2370, sponsored by Northwest Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, by voice vote. The proposed law will now head to the Senate, where Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has sponsored a companion bill.
In 1947, the federal government transferred much of Santa Rosa Island — for many years a federal military reservation — to Escambia County, under the condition that the county couldn’t sell or convey the island to anyone other than the federal government or the State of Florida. That led to a complicated system of 99-year leases, where home and business owners don’t technically own their property but rather lease it from the county.
Accordingly, residents and business paid originally paid lease fees but not property taxes, but a 2011 court ruling allowed county officials to assess property taxes also. County officials later cut lease fees by half, but many residents still feel the status quo is unfair.
“For too long, residents of Santa Rosa Island have suffered unfair double taxation, and have been denied the ability to own their own land,” Gaetz said in a statement. “My bill lifts the burden of double taxation, and restores the American Dream of property ownership.”
In 1956, Escambia County leased a chunk of the island — what’s now Navarre Beach — to Santa Rosa County. State officials later adjusted county lines to move the area within Santa Rosa’s boundaries, but because of the federal restrictions, Escambia can’t currently sell the Navarre Beach portion to Santa Rosa. Gaetz’s bill would require Escambia County to convey the Navarre Beach portion of the island to Santa Rosa within two years.
The bill won’t affect the federally-owned Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Gaetz says the bill stipulates that the non-federal areas of Santa Rosa Island dedicated for conservation, preservation, public access, and parking will be preserved in perpetuity.
“Keeping Santa Rosa Island beautiful is extremely important to me, and this bill ensures it stays as pristine as ever,” Gaetz said.
Some congressional Democrats disagree, though, saying the bill “does not include safeguards to ensure ongoing public access.” A report filed by five Democrats who serve on the House’s Natural Resources Committee “undermines the intent” of the federal government’s 1947 conveyance of the island, which was that it be used for public purposes. The report also expressed concerns that the bill would make it easier for local officials to dredge a channel through the island — referring to the so-called “Navarre Pass” plan — which they said would have a negative impact on wildlife and put private property and public infrastructure at risk.
Both the Escambia and Santa Rosa county commissions have adopted resolutions supporting the legislation. Gaetz called the bill a “team effort” on the part of local, state, and federal officials.
“This is how legislation is supposed to work,” said Gaetz. “People have pushed change for years, and now that change is finally coming. I’m happy to have been able to serve the people of Santa Rosa Island.”