Protecting Pensacola Beach: Politics and Future of Santa Rosa Island
Dianne Krumel is on a mission. She’s the founder and leader of Save Pensacola Beach. Their goal is to prevent fee simple ownership and maintain the 1947 deed that ensures Santa Rosa Island is publicly owned.
“We speak and we represent the will of the people, the 95,564 that voted to keep our public beaches publicly owned,” she said. “That’s our job and we’ve committed to them, and they’re trusting us to do the right thing for the people.”
Save Pensacola Beach helped place the non-binding county beach referendum on the ballot back in November. But four months after the vote, Krumel is still fighting, now for an ordinance.
“I’m asking you today right now will you be the commissioner you were elected to be and do the will of the people and put our proposed ordinance on the agenda for the county commissioners to vote?” Krumel asked at a commissioner meeting in January.
County Commissioner Robert Bender, who replaced Grover Robinson’s seat, doesn’t see the purpose in an ordinance since the 80 percent passage of the referendum made it clear how Escambia felt about beach ownership.
“As an elected official I feel like you have to listen to your constituents, and I feel like I as well as the rest of the board plan to follow that resolution,” Bender said.
But that’s not enough for Krumel. She wants this ordinance. Bender argues that an ordinance can always be overturned by a future board, making it useless. Beach resident and Pensacola Beach Advocates President Terry Preston says it’s just another sign that she’s nowhere closer to getting fee simple.
“If they move forward with this ordinance, the big thing it does as opposed to a referendum is if they decide to change it then it gets advertised twice,” Preston said.
But Preston and other beach residents almost got fee simple title these past few years. The 1947 deed prohibits Escambia County from selling or conveying any part of Santa Rosa Island. As a federal act of Congress, there would need to be another federal act to override it and grant fee simple ownership.
This kind of act has been put before Congress three different times in recent years. But each one has failed.
Rep. Matt Gaetz introduced the last act of Congress that would have allowed residents to own their property. Although it passed in the House, the Senate version failed when former Sen. Bill Nelson withdrew his support. Save Pensacola Beach was one of the groups that lobbied Nelson's office.
“We met with Senator Nelson, we got 14,000 petitions signed and went to Tallahassee to tell Senator Nelson this is not what the people wanted,” Krumel said.
The most final version of the bill introduced in the Senate did include language intended to maintain public areas, but would give the County Commission the final say in what to do with currently undeveloped lands.
But the County has taken several precautions to preserve Pensacola Beach so far. The Commission passed a resolution in the fall of 2018 limiting beach development. They also increased the votes needed to change beach zoning. Commissioner Bender says now every single county commissioner has to vote yes for any changes.
“As we have right now, you have to have a unanimous vote by our board to lease any new property and that includes roads, public access, preservation, and conservation anything that’s not currently leased today would have to come in front of our board and get a unanimous vote," he said. "My understanding is that may be one of the only things that requires a unanimous vote by our board.”
Preston and the Pensacola Beach Advocates believe you can grant fee simple title and protect the beach at the same time. She says maintaining Santa Rosa Island is a priority for her just like it is for Krumel.
“We want to save Pensacola beach too," she said. "That’s what I’d tell them. We really want to save Pensacola beach, we want to keep it the way it is.”
Preston had hoped she would own fee simple title for years. But at this point, she doesn’t think it’ll happen anytime soon.
“I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of hope though I’d like to say I do. I think someday somebody will come to their senses and say ‘yeah you guys own the property you might as well own the property,’ but right now I don’t see this board or county commission as supporting us.”
Save Pensacola Beach and Dianne Krumel aren’t sure whether the County Commission supports them either. They’re hopeful the Board will pass their ordinance though nothing is certain. What is for sure, is Krumel’s resolve in doing what she believes is the best thing for Santa Rosa Island.
“It’s the most valuable asset the citizens of Escambia County will ever own,” she said. “It belongs to us, and it belongs to future generations and that’s why I’m fighting because I grew up on this beach and I want future generations that are coming down to be able to enjoy the same beach that I got to enjoy when I was growing up.”
Krumel and the Save Pensacola Beach team say they don’t have a position on the tax and lease issues. The reason they don’t want fee simple is because it would overturn the 1947 deed, which they believe is the greatest source of protection for Pensacola Beach.
Ultimately what happens to the beach will be decided by future boards and members of Congress. For now, the beach isn’t in immediate danger of being overdeveloped. Whether residents ever get fee simple title or the beach stays largely undeveloped remains to be seen in the years to come.