The Santa Rosa exemption

When the U.S. Senate returns to Capitol Hill in September from its monthlong vacation, the members will be considering national issues such as reforming health care and rewriting the tax code.

But along with the big issues, there is a measure on the agenda that will directly affect only two counties in the Florida Panhandle.

The “Escambia County Land Conveyance Act,” passed by the House in July, would give leaseholders on Santa Rosa Island the option to acquire fee simple titles to their property. Currently, residents pay property taxes in addition to a lease fee.

The House bill sponsor, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, has said this is clearly double taxation.

While many residents have voiced support for the bill, many others have expressed concerns regarding the “preservation clause.”  This clause requires counties to “preserve in perpetuity the areas of the non-Federal land that, as of the date of enactment of this Act, are dedicated for conservation, preservation, public recreation access and public parking, in accordance with any resolutions of the Board of Commissioners of the County.”

The problem is that this clause does not apply to Santa Rosa County. Gaetz said reopening the Navarre Pass, a waterway that temporarily connected Santa Rosa Sound to the Gulf of Mexico in the 1960s, was his sole motivation for the Santa Rosa exemption.

But residents of both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have questioned whether the measure would restrict public access and put conservation areas in danger of development.

County Commission Chairman Rob Williamson, who represents the district that includes Navarre, told constituents at a roundtable meeting Aug. 10 he supports the bill as written.

“I think that bill has a very specific purpose and up until now the reason it has never passed is because it has been combined with other purposes that have nothing to do with giving people title to their land,” Williamson said.

Previous versions of the bill died in Congress, largely due to possible limitation on reopening the Navarre Pass.

When asked if he had any concerns regarding loss of conservation lands, Gaetz said: “I have no concern.”

He pointed out that Gulf Islands National Seashore would remain protected regardless.

He said he also believes the county commissioners are behind protecting these lands.

“Fortunately, with our county commissioners there is a real belief that we need to preserve Navarre Beach’s public access, so that folks throughout the region can enjoy just this great gem that we have in the coastline of northwest Florida,” Gaetz said.

Williamson said he could not see any reason for the preservation clause.

“That bill is related to property ownership and has nothing to do with zoning or future land use,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of Santa Rosa County to voluntarily self-impose future land use restrictions … all (the bill is doing) is giving people the opportunity to own their own land, pure and simple.”

While passing the bill through both houses of Congress would clear one hurdle for those seeking to reopen the Navarre Pass, conflict with Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field would still be an issue. Official statements from both entities state that a pass would negatively affect training and testing currently conducted on Santa Rosa Island.

“Right now we cannot have a pass because there is conflict with the military mission,” Gaetz said. “Until we create military capabilities that can replicate those that exist now out on Navarre Beach, we have got to temporarily pause our ambitions for a pass and really focus on the military mission.”

Gaetz has been pushing for funding to be allocated that would allow training and testing currently conducted exclusively in the area to be performed somewhere else.

Gaetz stated that more than half the economy in Northwest Florida is tied to the military, but when asked about the economic impact of moving those military personnel somewhere else, Gaetz said he is not concerned.

Previously, Gaetz has taken a hard line against amendments to the fee simple bill, stating he would rather kill his own bill than jeopardize the pass, but he seems to have softened on that topic. He pointed out that the county commissioners of both Santa Rosa and Escambia counties helped to craft the bill’s current language.

“This has really been a team effort…If there were to be any change, I wouldn’t want to unilaterally speak to its acceptability,” he said. “I would want to include all the members of the team that have been a part of getting us to this point.”

If approved by the Senate, where Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson have cosponsored the bill, the measure would have to be signed by the president to become law.

As both houses of Congress prepare to tackle national hot-button issues, it is yet to be seen where the fee simple bill will fall in the shuffle.

As seen in the Aug. 24 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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