There’s been a lot of talk about a bill working its way through congress than would make it possible for Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach leaseholders to obtain “fee simple” title to their property.

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.

But HR 2370, also called the Escambia County Land Conveyance Act, would change that, lifting those 1947 restrictions and allowing the county to transfer property to individuals and businesses. Sponsored by Northwest Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, the bill passed in the U.S. House on July 26; a companion bill, S 1073, is currently working its way through the Senate.

Santa Rosa Island, looking eastward from Casino Beach. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

1. If passed, the bill would end what many beach residents consider “double taxation.”

Originally, beach leaseholders paid lease fees instead of property taxes, since they lease rather than own their property. But as early as 1970, Escambia County officials tried to levy property taxes on beach leaseholders, sparking a series of lawsuits that continued for decades. Following a 2014 Florida Supreme Court ruling, many beach leaseholders have been paying both lease fees and property taxes.

If Gaetz’s bill passes, and leaseholders are able to obtain fee simple title to their properties, they’ll no longer have to pay lease fees.

“For too long, residents of Santa Rosa Island have suffered unfair double taxation, and have been denied the ability to own their own land,” Rep. Gaetz said in July. “My bill lifts the burden of double taxation, and restores the American Dream of property ownership.”

Pensacola Beach, largely undeveloped in the 1940s. (UWF Archives/Special to The Pulse)

2. The county wouldn’t be able to sell or profit from beach property.

While the bill gives Escambia and Santa Rosa the power to transfer property on Santa Rosa Island free of the 1947 restrictions, they can’t make any money on the deals. Under the bill, any proceeds received by the counties from conveyances — aside from direct and incidental costs associated with the transfers — would be considered “windfall profits” and would have to be turned over to the federal government.

3. The bill protects public access to (some of) the beachfront.

The bill contains an explicit requirement that Escambia County “shall preserve in perpetuity the areas … that, as of the date of enactment of this Act, are dedicated for conservation, preservation, public recreation access, and public parking.”

From the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier east to the National Seashore property, the beachfront is zoned Con/Rec-PB (Conservation and Recreation), so if the bill passes, we shouldn’t see any “private beach” signs going up on that side of Pensacola Beach.

It’s a different story west of the pier, however. Only about half of the beachfront west of the pier is zoned Con/Rec-PB or PR-PB (Preservation). The rest is zoned for either condos or hotels, and without additional action to preserve public access to those parts of the beachfront, it’s possible they could end up in private hands.

“The vast majority of Gulf-front leases were written such that the seaward property line is up at the vegetative line and not down at the water, thus leaving the sandy part of the beach designated for the public,” said Escambia County Attorney Allison Rogers. “Assuming the County’s deed restriction were lifted or amended by Congress and fee simple could be conveyed, the County would have to decide what to do with any property that had boundaries defined by lease that were not drawn in this fashion, such as one that had a seaward boundary at the water.”

Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore occupy the western end of Santa Rosa Island. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

4. The bill won’t affect the Gulf Islands National Seashore or county-owned areas like Park West and Park East.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore, which includes the westernmost 7.5 miles of Santa Rosa Island as well as the Santa Rosa Day Use Area between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, is owned by the federal government and is a protected national park. Nothing in the bill would change that.

Park West and Park East are county-owned parks located just inside the National Seashore boundaries on either end of the beach. Both areas are zoned Con/Rec-PB (Conservation and Recreation) and would be preserved in perpetuity under the bill.

5. Once beach leaseholders own their property, they can sell it to anyone they want.

Opponents of the bill have argued that it will open the door to increased development on Pensacola Beach, because there will be nothing to stop a big developer from buying up single-family lots and building a new condo or hotel.

While it’s true that beach property owners will be able to sell their land as they please, it won’t necessarily lead to increased development. As in the rest of unincorporated Escambia County, development on the beach is limited by zoning, and unlike the rest of the county, the beach is subject to specific development caps. County commissioners will have the power to open the beach up to more development, but they already have that power today.

Development on Pensacola Beach is subject to county-mandated caps. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

6. The bill is supported by both of Florida’s U.S. Senators.

This isn’t the first time similar legislation has been brought forward or even the first time it’s passed in the House, but it is the first time that both of Florida’s U.S. Senators — Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson — have signed on to support such a bill.

In the past, Sen. Nelson, a veteran, has opposed similar legislation over concerns that it could lead to the reopening of the so-called Navarre Pass — a channel through the island, connecting Santa Rosa Sound with the Gulf, which existed for a few months in 1965 — which officials at nearby Eglin Air Force Base oppose. Unlike previous incarnations, the current bill doesn’t include any language about the Navarre Pass. Gaetz, who supports reopening the pass, has said it’s best to handle private ownership and the pass as two separate issues.


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