The public areas of Pensacola Beach, including the sandy beaches and access points, are and will remain public. No one disputes this.
The leased parcels and homes are different. The Florida Supreme Court says the leaseholder own them. And because they are not public, no property tax exemption applies. The leaseholders must and do pay property tax. Yet, the deed conveying Pensacola Beach from the federal government lists the public as the owners. This tension suggests determining ownership is not simple.
In 1946, the federal government authorized the conveyance of Santa Rosa Island to Escambia County. It directed Pensacola Beach be used for the “public interest” (as deemed by Escambia) and specifically permitted private leases. Soon after, the Santa Rosa Island Authority, began leasing parcels with the assurance that they were not subject to property tax because the government remained the title owner.
Most leases on Pensacola Beach are for 99 years and are renewable. So long as leaseholders pay their annual lease, it’s their parcel to use, sell, and leave to heirs. Escambia can’t take them back. Accordingly, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the leaseholders, and not the public, hold “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. The Court elevated substance over form—practical property rights over the name on the deed. As a result of this 2014 ruling, most leaseholders now pay both property tax and lease fees.
The lease fees were originally designed as tax substitutes—when everyone expected the land to be tax-exempt. Today, they pay for services and events enjoyed by people throughout Escambia — Blue Angles’ show, Bands on the Beach, and beach renourishment.
Leaseholders understandably want relief from this double taxation. They support pending federal legislation that would eliminate the leases and thereby the lease fees. It would allow the deeds to properly reflect who already owns the parcels.
Also understandably, everyone fears overdevelopment and losing the open and accessible character that makes our beach special. We see the trends and don’t want our beach to go the way of Destin.
But will the federal legislation actually cause this? Its text says nothing at all about development. While by definition private development requires private ownership, the Court says that’s how it is already. And the “save our beach” opposition has yet to explain why their protests are anything more than undifferentiated fear and speculation. Civic debate requires more than loudly forecasting the what-ifs. The opponents must also say how this legislation will actually cause the parade of horribles. Ideally, they should also propose alternative solutions to the double taxation — like eliminating lease fees?
Worse, the “save our beach” opposition to the federal legislation dangerously misidentifies the real threat to preserving the beach we all love. County officials can already amend leases and the land use code to pave the way for overdevelopment. The federal legislation would give them no new powers. Indeed, it removes significant authority by requiring the preservation in perpetuity of Pensacola Beach’s public spaces. The law would prohibit county officials from putting a high-rise on the Casino Beach. And because all gulf front lots end at the dune line, our beach would never have a “no trespassing” sign and no access points will be lost.
So, the threat is not beach residents being deeded the homes they already own. The real threat is a county’s amendment of our land use code or increase of the cap on the number of condo and houses above the current (and mostly used) 4,128 dwelling units.
Let’s not be distracted by current or proposed federal laws. They will not save us. Instead, we must stay focused on ensuring our county officials continue to be good stewards and remain committed to a vision of the beach as a family-friendly, environmentally-focused mixture of residences and beaches and business open to all.
This was published as a Guestview in the Pensacola News Journal on Sept. 26, 2017.