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House Approves Beach Lease Holder Bill

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The U.S. House voted 220-194 Thursday, to approve a bill that would allow residents of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach to get ownership of their leased properties, and to begin paying taxes on them. It now goes to the Senate, where its future is murky.

Sponsored by Congressman Jeff Miller, the measure would remove restrictions in the original 1947 deed barring Escambia County from issuing titles to land on Santa Rosa Island.

“Instead, the county began leasing the property to individuals, who could pay a lease fee, instead of being charged a property tax,” Miller said. 

Miller spoke on the House floor prior to the vote, calling the HR-2954 a “simple solution to a very important property rights issue in northwest Florida.” The legislation, contends Miller, is a “fairness issue.” It would give the lease holders the option to acquire “fee-simple” title to their property, while protecting a number of existing agreements regarding conservation, preservation, public access and recreation.

The measure would also help ease management of Santa Rosa Island by allowing the delivery of certain lands now owned by Escambia to the island.

Dan Brown, Superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore, says both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior have no problems with the bill’s provisions on taxation. But he adds that Cong. Miller misspoke on the House floor on another proposal.

“I think the intent of Cong. Miller is to assure that those undeveloped lands remain in a conservation-preservation state, available for public use and recreation,” said Brown. “I think that was the intent of the bill, and the intent of those who were involved with it. But if you read it carefully, I do not believe that it accomplishes that.”

The Obama administration and some Democrats oppose the bill. They’re concerned the changes would revive a once-discussed proposal to reopen Navarre Pass – which in turn they feel could lead to possible issues with access and island resources.

Thursday’s vote came as officials in both counties await two Florida Supreme Court rulings, on whether county-owned land on Santa Rosa Island and leaseholders’ properties can be taxed. The cases target 24 hundred properties on Pensacola Beach, and about 850 pieces of property on Navarre Beach.