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Miller, Rubio Back Measure Giving Fee-Simple Title On Santa Rosa Island

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If two Florida lawmakers get their way, Escambia County would get the ability to provide the option to convey some property on Santa Rosa Island to their leaseholders.

Cong. Jeff Miller and Sen. Marco Rubio have introduced identical bills aimed at ensuring that leaseholders currently paying taxes and living and working on Santa Rosa Island, will get the choice to attain title to their land.

“This would actually give them clear deed and title to the property,” said Miller. “This has been done before; Okaloosa Island a number of years ago. And this issue’s been kicked around now for a long time.”

Ownership of Santa Rosa Island has bounced back and forth between the federal government and local counties numerous times. The most recent was in 1947, when the feds deeded interest in the portion of the island not contained in the Gulf Islands National Seashore back to Escambia County, with one condition: the county could lease the land or return it to the federal government – but not sell it.  

Not long after taking custody of the island, Escambia County began offering leases to businesses and homeowners who would pay a lease fee, but not be charged property taxes. Since then, the courts have allowed leaseholders to be assessed property taxes, in addition to existing lease fees and improvements.

“The tax issue has arisen,” Miller said. “Is it fair to tax somebody on property that they do not physically own? They’ve paid for it, because the leases actually have been sold as normal real estate would sell. This is not a giveaway to anybody.”

The Miller/Rubio legislation would also make sure that leaseholders and local governments can jointly address any local tax issues that arise in the future.  

Besides what the bills would do, there’s also a list of what they would not do. They would not affect public beach access; it does not reopen the Navarre Pass, or remove restriction on conservation areas. And it does not affect Gulf Islands National Seashore, or the mission of the National Park Service.

In a written statement, Sen. Marco Rubio said the measure intends “to remove obstacles the government has put up in the way of ownership.” A similar measure died last year, and Cong. Jeff Miller welcomes Rubio’s help this time. 

“It’s very important to have companion bills in both houses, to allow the process to work through regular order,” Miller said. “This passed the House last year, so I would expect we would be able to get it to pass again.”

Asked if the bills’ chances were improved now that the Senate is in Republican hands, Miller replied, “I don’t think it would hurt.”