Matt Gaetz’s proposed law will allow Pensacola Beach leaseholders to finally own their homes. Opponents fear that this would cut off public access and use of the beach and result in over-development. However, their fears are misguided. This legislation poses no such threat. It maintains the status quo. So long as local official remain committed to a vision of the beach as a family-friendly, environmentally-focused mixture of residences and business, we have nothing to fear.
Local officials currently govern beach development. In 1947, the U.S. Government deeded the non-federal land on Santa Rosa Island to Escambia County. It conditioned the conveyance of the land being used for the public interest (as deemed by Escambia) and specifically permitted private leases. In this way, the federal government left beach development in the hands of local officials. Opponents claim that the leaseholds prevent development. This is wrong. Public officials already have the power to change leases and the land use code. The legislation gives them no new authority.
Current public access and beaches will forever remain public. The legislation requires the “preserv[ation] in perpetuity [of] the areas ... dedicated for conservation, preservation, public recreation access, and public parking.” That is Pensacola Beach’s beach and access points will forever be public. This would prohibit Escambia from later deciding to lease these public spaces and convert them for private use. Although the legislation permits Santa Rosa to lease its public land, that is no different than how it is today. Both Santa Rosa and Escambia already have the authority to lease land currently reserved for public use.
Beach residents, like county residents, want to preserve beach access and public use. Unlike most of Florida, the private property line on Pensacola Beach ends at the dune, not the high-tide water line. And the vast majority of beach residents do not have gulf-front property, but want to be able to access and enjoy the vast public beaches. They too want to preserve the low-density, residential areas of the beach.
Beach residents deserve fair tax treatment. In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that beach leaseholders enjoy “virtually all the benefits and burdens of ownership of both the improvements and the land.” Because they effectively own the property, they must pay property tax. However, unlike a fee simple property owner, they must also pay lease fees originally designed as a tax substitute. The pending federal law would eliminate leaseholds and this double payment.
The Navarre Pass requires federal government approval. The federal law does not address the Navarre Pass. The law will neither prohibit nor permit reestablishing it. Instead, the Pass's authorization continues to depend on several federal agencies signing off, including the Air Force. But because they all oppose it, the Navarre Pass is unlikely to happen.
We all share a common desire to preserve the Pensacola Beach we all love. Instead of being divided over a law granting ownership to leaseholders, we should unite to ensure our local government continues to be a good stewards.