Florida's First District Court of Appeal has upheld a lower court's decision denying the Escambia County School District's standing to intervene in a dispute between Pensacola Beach leaseholders and the county's property appraiser.
Thursday's ruling involved a case brought by owners of condominiums in the Santa Rosa Dunes Complex.
Ed Fleming, an attorney who represented the Santa Rosa Dunes residents and who has represented hundreds of other beach residents in tax cases against the county, said the ruling should put an end to legal questions about whether leased land underneath condominium complexes should be subject to ad valorem taxes.
"We are obviously pleased with the ruling," he said in a released statement.
Malcolm Thomas, superintendent for the Escambia County School district, questioned the ruling.
"It is mysterious to me that they would say we do not have standing because the school district has millions of dollars at stake from all properties in Escambia county, not just the beach," he said.
Thomas said he did not know what next steps the district might take. Thomas has previously said the district had $6 million in a reserve account created to hold disputed taxes. More than 30 condominium homeowners associations have filed lawsuits questioning the collection of taxes on leased land.
Pensacola Beach is unique because it was deeded to Escambia County, along with much of the rest of Santa Rosa Island, in 1947. The deed agreement prohibited the county from selling the beach land and stated that the land must be used in a way that benefits the public.
The county decided in the 1950s to develop the beach to bring in tourism revenue and set up a system of 99-year leases to encourage commercial and residential development on the island. The county advertised "tax-free" beach land in publications nationwide.
After Pensacola Beach was heavily developed in the 1980s, the county turned to the beach as a source of property tax revenue. The move prompted a long series of lawsuits that continue today.
Complicating the issue is that language in the leases has changed over the decades. Some leases are open for renegotiation after 99 years and others are perpetually renewable. The courts have ruled that the perpetually renewable leases are tantamount to outright ownership and can be taxed, while the renegotiable leases are not.