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We urge Florida Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to withdraw support of Senate Bill 1073, “Escambia County Land Conveyance Act”.

Local activists and attorneys who oppose this bill know what they are talking about. The politicians who support the bill want the federal government to bail them out of a double-taxation problem created when the Escambia County property appraiser broke promises the leaseholders received when they first occupied their leased property.

If the Senate bill’s intent is fair taxation, the straightforward action would be for the relevant Escambia County officials to abolish or exempt collection of the second tax. Changing the legal structure invites unintended consequences, particularly for private development unfettered by a publically vetted master plan or other controls to ensure the public benefits.

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

Indeed, the Senate bill presents a clear path for private development on Navarre Beach, which appears to include a long held desire to open the Navarre Pass. We are surprised that any United States senator would find this acceptable, as it calls into question our region’s commitment to Eglin Air Force Base. Good jobs here result from a stable military presence, healthcare and future forward-looking industries such as sustainable energy production and wastewater treatment. Local and federal officials should encourage these diverse industries to Northwest Florida rather than add risk to Eglin’s future by releasing pristine beaches for more hotels and condominiums that generate minimum wage jobs.

The second area for private development appears to be Pensacola Beach residential areas, where code enforcement officials tolerate private landscapes that block public rights of way and misleading signs that deter visitors from parking legally on roads adjacent to leased property. Your bill would embolden this privileged attitude and attract developers seeking to combine properties and otherwise induce county commissions with shortsighted revenue schemes.

The effect of county revenue temptations is shown in the contrast between Santa Rosa Island’s development and Perdido Key’s development. One was developed under the auspices of Escambia County, or a semi-autonomous organ thereof, with the benefit of federal protections. The other was also developed under the auspices of Escambia County but without federal protections. Residents of both have fought to restrain developers, but only one offers the sort of county-wide public benefit that the 1946 legislators appear to have envisioned.

99-year leases were offered to spur commercial and residential development on Santa Rosa Island. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

So, what’s our vision for the future? Where’s the plan to develop Santa Rosa Island for public benefit?  Unfortunately, they don’t exist. There is no articulated vision. There is no accessible environmental, infrastructure or economic impact study. The lack of a publically vetted development plan for a Gulf Coast barrier island is reckless.  The shortfall calls into question Escambia and Santa Rosa authorities’ stewardship of natural resources and their commitment to public oversight of developer designs. Under these circumstances, the bill’s “in perpetuity” protection clauses are empty words undermined by broken promises and unsupported by facts on the ground.

Tell local authorities to solve their double-taxation mess with local tax reform. Before thinking about removing the current federal protections, require Florida or local officials to certify they are satisfied with the scope and content of local development plans for Santa Rosa Island. Absent a plan, we are planning to fail in our duty to work for the public good.

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Dr. Thomas Campanella is an elected member of the Santa Rosa Island Authority and is a 47-year resident of Santa Rosa Island. Phil Ehr is a candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, a retired commander in the U.S. Navy, and a 33-year Escambia County voter.

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