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In the 2040s, the first 99-year leases on Santa Rosa Island will begin to expire, and both the Santa Rosa Island Authority and Escambia County will find themselves in an interesting position.

While I don’t believe future commissioners will take someone’s property and remarket it to the highest bidder, one of the reasons why Chris Jones has won his tax lawsuits, there is no guarantee. The only guarantee those leaseholders have is a fee simple option, which is enjoyed by every other property owner in Escambia County.

This represents the true dilemma that the current fee simple legislation (HR 2370/S 1073) in Congress hopes to address. It’s unfortunate that some people and the local media seem to want to ignore this and rather intentionally stoke emotion with knowingly false statements. Talk about real “fake news.”

Santa Rosa Island, looking eastward from Casino Beach. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

The legislation will not privatize anything that is not currently private through an ongoing lease. The bill clearly says this. It also says in black and white that those areas currently designated public, conservation, preservation, parking, sidewalks or any other uses — this includes all the area between the dune line and the water — are to remain public in perpetuity. Escambia County supported that kind of strong preservation language within the bill because I strongly believe in preserving the public use of those areas.

When opponents throw out inaccurate accusations such as this bill means people can develop the beach or buy and sell property on the beach, they intentionally attempt to mislead people about things that are already in existence today.  Look at the beach, everything there was developed through a lease. Look at the Pensacola MLS and see how many properties are being sold now on Pensacola Beach with a lease. The lease does not prevent development, buying and selling, or even privatization. Try to park in a hotel parking lot without being a guest.

For 14 years and the entirety of my tenure on the Escambia Board of County Commissioners, the taxation issue has dragged along and prevented the beach from properly planning for its future. At some point people need real options and real solutions instead of a judicial stalemate.

For more than eight years I have worked on trying to offer real solutions. During that time, many people have tried to make me change the strong preservation stance Escambia County has taken; however, I will not yield as long as I am commissioner. But come November 2018, I will no longer be a commissioner, and I do not know if the next commissioner will have a strong relationship with our federal delegation to avoid temptations to compromise on Escambia’s strong stance on public lands.

Development on Pensacola Beach is subject to county-mandated caps. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

Overwhelmingly, the theme I have heard from opponents is “I am scared of change.”

Unfortunately, change is inevitable like the tides that happen whether we want them or not. From time to time we may have to change our tactics, but we never should change our values. Towards that end, this legislation offers a fee simple option that is not forced on any leaseholder, but will not compromise on the conservation and preservation stance in this legislation.

If options are not kept for future boards, they will be limited to ration our greatest park amenity by financial means. Your access to the beach should not be limited by your access to capital, and I have fought for years to preserve that concept.

In closing, this bill tries to offer the BCC and the citizens more options for the future of the Santa Rosa Island. You don’t have to like the bill, but if we are going to find real solutions, there must be honest debate. Unlike the news stories, this editorial outlines the facts of not only in the legislation, but also the overall situation facing beach residents. All of the citizens of Escambia County benefit when government provides honest options as opposed to forcing biased constraints.

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