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Protecting Pensacola Beach: How We Got Here

Abigail Megginson

November 6, 2018. The long-awaited night of the midterm elections. And while most of the attention is focused on the tight Senate and gubernatorial races, there’s one Escambia County ballot initiative at the very bottom of the ballot that deserves a bit of notice, too:

The nonbinding county beach referendum.

It asked voters whether they supported public ownership of all land on Santa Rosa Island.

This initiative received more than 80 percent of the vote in Escambia. The goal was to send a message to the Escambia Board of County Commissioners about land ownership on Pensacola Beach, future development and public access. Former county commissioner Grover Robinson spoke on the importance of the issue at a meeting in August before the referendum was ever placed on the ballot. 

“I just want to say this is a very difficult topic, but it is at the core of who we are in Escambia County and Pensacola Beach."

But this referendum was non-binding, meaning there’s nothing to prevent the current or future board of county commissioners, or Congress, from reneging on this statement.

So why was there a ballot initiative in the first place? And why, even after this vote, are people still concerned about beach access? It all started back in the 40s when Congress passed what is known as the 1947 deed. 

This federal act gave Escambia County full ownership of Santa Rosa Island, including Pensacola Beach. Larry Keller practiced real estate law for 20 years and is legal counsel for the Save Pensacola Beach initiative. He says this deed in 1947 made two important claims that are still relevant today.

“Even though the county is given authority in the deed to lease parts of the beach every single use has to be in the public’s interest,” he said.

Secondly, the county is never supposed to convey Santa Rosa Island or otherwise dispose of it.

“It was very clear from the way the Florida politicians wrote it that they didn’t want it to be given away, meant to be that way forever,” he said.

Practically, this means no one can hold title to the land except for the county. So everyone on Pensacola Beach, who either lives there or has a business, doesn’t own the land they’re on. They lease it out and pay an annual fee to the Santa Rosa Island Authority. 

Thomas Campanella has lived on Pensacola Beach since 1975. He’s also been the only elected member of the Island Authority for nearly 16 years.

“SRIA is the governing body that was established by the 24500 act by the Legislature and it was given the duties to oversee the beach, development, initially put here for public, duty is to maintain and oversee development, be the governing body,” he said. 

Thomas Campanella

Though the structure and scope of the Island Authority has changed over time, for the most part it worked really well. The lease fees from residents paid for the island authority, which made sure to keep up the island for residents and visitors. The land continued to be developed. Residents and beach goers alike enjoyed the white dunes and emerald waves.

Terry Preston has owned a home on the beach since 1979. She’s retired and lives in a tall yellow house just a short walk from the waterfront. She helps with sea turtle patrol during turtle season and loves living next to the ocean.

What Preston doesn’t love is what she sees as unfair taxation on beach residents. In 2011, a court decision was made that is in many ways, the reason for a lot of the beach controversy today.

“The court case was lost at that point in time we said OK if you guys are going to tax us on the property because you’re telling us that we own the property then why not let us own the property,” Preston said.

And here. This is where a lot of the problems regarding the beach start. This idea that county authorities can both tax residents as if they owned the property while also charging them a lease fee for “renting” the property.

Because of this decision, it opened the floodgates for new acts of Congress, advocacy groups, and lots of controversy over how to protect the beach from overdevelopment and maintain public beach access.