H. 2370/S. 1073 Escambia County Land Conveyance

H. 2370 Escambia County Land Conveyance Act will be voted on in the House of Representatives next week

Matt Gaetz in the House, as well as both Rubio and Nelson in the Senate, have proposed legislation that nullifies the 1946 Congressional land conveyance that gifted the citizens of Escambia County.

In 1946 Congress abolished the Santa Rosa National Monument. The bill, H. R. 4486, reads: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Santa Rosa Island National Monument, Florida, is hereby abolished, and the Secretary of the Interior is authorized and directed to donate and convey to Escambia County, State of Florida, all the right, title, and interest of the United States in and to that portion of Santa Rosa Island, Florida, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, to be retained by the said Escambia County and to be used by it for such purposes as it shall deem to be in the public interest or to be leased by it from time to time in whole or in part or parts to such persons and for such purposes as it shall deem to be in the public interest and upon such terms and conditions as it shall fix and always to be subject to regulation by said county whether leased or not leased but never to be otherwise disposed of or conveyed by it : Provided, That nothing herein shall prevent the said county from conveying said property back to the Federal Government or to the State of Florida or any agency thereof.”

Our current Congress is working on H. 2370/S. 1073, “To authorize Escambia County, Florida, to convey certain property that was formerly part of Santa Rosa Island National Monument and that was conveyed to Escambia County subject to restrictions on use and reconveyance.”

The House version of the bill, H. 2370, was sponsored by Rep. Matt Gatz, FL01. Inexplicably, Sen. Nelson has co-sponsored this Senate bill written by Sen. Rubio after opposing at least three previous versions. If this passes, Santa Rosa Island homes that are currently sitting on LEASED land owned by the citizens of Escambia County will be able to purchase that land and dispose of it at will, in whatever manner that individual sees fit.

Once that happens, developers will be able to move in, offering owners huge sums of money to buy up that land in large blocks, commercializing and privatizing what is currently natural and enjoyed by the public with very few access restrictions.

Any change to the original intent of the law would open the door for additional changes. Precedent of enormous concern is being set that all conveyances of Public land would become reversible. It follows that protections of undeveloped land would also be under fire.

Litigation will follow because the original deed was explicit- No Conveyances and the only use was to be for the "public interest." Perhaps the strongest argument is "there is no right way to do a wrong thing." Public servants should serve the public and protect precious assets that belong to the public. Any action to undo the 1947 deed is an effort to take property from the citizens of Escambia County, the rightful owners. People built on a promise of a 99-year lease. They knew the risk and have enjoyed the rewards. But they are entitled to no ownership!

Sen. Nelson, in a Pensacola News Journal article on July 17, 2017 said “he also decided to support the latest effort to overturn restrictions in the 1946 agreement deeding a large swath of Santa Rosa Island to Escambia County because it is not tied to any plan for a Navarre Pass. Previous bills for private ownership of the local beach land have included provisions involving the cutting of a pass through a narrow section of Navarre Beach to allow boat traffic to flow from Santa Rosa Sound to the Gulf of Mexico.”

"I wanted it guaranteed that they were not going to whack a new cut in the barrier island," Nelson said.

One problem is that, while Escambia County has demanded protections for undeveloped property, Santa Rosa County has not. This means that Navarre beach is in more immediate danger of overdevelopment.

The double taxation that a vocal minority of island residents objects to has not been fully litigated. While the ad valorem land improvement taxes were deemed inappropriate, the land taxes have not been legally challenged.

Why, then, move directly to fee-simple? There are still legal remedies to be sought.

Fun fact: The largest industry contributions to Rep. Gaetz in his 2016 Congressional race are from real estate, $62,000. That seems mighty cheap for enabling the sale and development prime Gulf-front property.

Currently, lease fees collected from island property stay on the islannd they serve as the source of maintenance and improvements on the island. If leases are changed to fee-simple, that tax money is collected by the county and would be used, as all other county-collected monies, to fund county priorities. Santa Rosa Island is not guaranteed to be one of those priorities.

Lease fees also determine zoning. Under fee-simple, the county alone would determine zoning. Do you trust our County Commissioners, the ones we have now and the ones we may have in the future, from this moment onward, to have the protection of the island in mind as they consider zoning?

The take-away here is that, with the demise of leases on Santa Rosa Island, the biggest winners are Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, real estate developers, Margaritaville Hotel, the Hilton Hotel, and, of course, Portofino. The losers are the residents of Santa Rosa Island and the island itself.

The House has already begun moving the legislation forward. It passed the bill through the House Committee on Natural Resources on June 27, 2017, and will come up for a full House vote next week.

A hearing in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday July 19, 2017 was supposed to include S. 1073, but that bill was not mentioned during the hearing.

This is not a partisan issue.

This is a public vs. private, citizen vs. developer, greed vs. public good issue.

If this could happen to Santa Rosa Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, it could happen anywhere. Think about the areas nationwide that you treasure as your favorite bits of publicly-owned and publicly accessible nature. Then think about Congress passing an Act that privatizes that spot and allows developers to move in and build with little or no restraint.

How would miles of high-rise condos look on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon?