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Protecting Pensacola Beach: Double Taxation Sparks Today's Controversy

Abigail Megginson

No one wants to pay for the same thing twice, but that’s what some beach residents are concerned about and trying to fight against.

“It’s just frankly not fair. We’re paying lease fees, we’re paying taxes,” said beach resident and President of the Pensacola Beach Advocates Terry Preston.

Ever since a court decision in 2011, residents have had to pay both property taxes to the county and lease fees to the island authority.

“Anyway, it’s like a one-two punch. So then in 2010 or 2011, they decided that they’d tax the land too. Because after all if we had a 99-year lease on the land nobody could use that either so we essentially owned it.”

Escambia Property Appraiser Chris Jones wanted to tax the beach property. The argument was since these leases on the beach were 99 years long, they were practically the same as being owned by the residents and therefore should be taxed. Thomas Campanella has lived on the Santa Rosa Island for nearly 40 years and served on the Island Authority as the board’s only elected official. He said this taxing of property is the moment when the beach controversy began.

“When you begin to tax the land as well, they said wait a minute we’re paying a lease fee and a tax on the land then that’s when the real double taxation group out here started,” Campanella said. 

But why does all this matter? Why not just give these residents ownership of their land since the judge said their leases are like ownership anyhow? One issue is public access, but there are some built-in protections on Pensacola Beach.

Preston pointed out that even if people did own their land on the beach they would never be able to keep people off the shore because their lease only goes to the dune line.

“Under leasehold right now you can’t step foot on my property without my permission,” said Preston. “See that greenhouse over there, you can’t step foot on their property without their permission. The beauty of it is their property line ends on this side of the dunes. So it can’t turn into a Walton county where people are roping off the beach.” 

Credit Abigail Megginson / WUWF
Homeowners on Pensacola Beach pay lease fees for their properties, and ever since a court decision in 2011, they've had to pay property taxes, too. Many residents see the double fees as unfair.

But Campanella says there are unintended consequences if residents are allowed to own their land. For one, the Santa Rosa Island Authority couldn’t exist without a steady income of lease fees. As far as development goes, the SRIA has the duty to review any changes to land development caps. If the county ever did decide to raise the cap to allow more development, the Island Authority board has the opportunity to advise for or against any changes. 

“As long as you have the island authority and the lease system set up here, it can’t be changed,” Campanella said. “Cause they’re going to have to come to us and try to get us to change the cap. We’re here for one thing to be here and preserve for everybody to come and enjoy.”

Although Escambia County can change the cap at any time no matter what the island authority says, the existence of the Santa Rosa Island Authority means any changes would be that much harder to implement. It’s a permanent layer of protection and it could go away if residents have fee simple title and lease fee payments stop. Right now, the beach has hit the cap, and it’d have to be changed to further development.