Saturday, May 03, 2008

Beach Deeds, Taxes, and Stare Decisis

It's 'Beach Deeds Day' at the Pensacola News Journal. The paper editorializes, "Don't Rush to Make Area Beaches Private."

Channeling county commissioner Grover Robinson IV and residents' SRIA representative Dr. Thomas Campanella, the newspaper's editorial flatly warns:
There should be no rush to convert leases on Santa Rosa Island to private ownership. There are serious questions to be answered, and obstacles in the way.
Adjacent to that in the print version of the Saturday edition, former PNJ editor in chief J. Earle Bowden observes "Public Loses When Beach Converted to Private." (Oddly, the on-line version when we first saw it gives no hint who wrote it.)

Newcomers may not know this, but Bowden is virtually the Father of Gulf Islands National Seashore. He courageously led the charge in the 1960's to save Santa Rosa Island from shockingly honky-tonk developer plans to pave the island from one end to the other. In the end, his efforts were instrumental in adding the Gulf Islands National Seashore to nine other seashore areas to form the biggest national park in the nation.

Largely due to Bowden's foresight and leadership, we still have a public beach to argue over. The story is told in "The Sands of All Time: Preserving America's Largest National Seashore." Doug Waitley's Best Back Roads of Florida has a synopsis.

Retired now, but still active, today Earle Bowden serves up a useful summary of beach deed history along with an abrupt condemnation of how the county to abuses its trust:
The Interior Department's public-use reverter clause protects a valuable asset. I question whether either county upholds the real spirit of the Interior Department public-use deed clause. Pricey high-rise condos and residences continue to diminish the openness of publicly-owned beaches; private ownership of the land would open the gate toward more private beach.
Pensacola Beach residents, like the public at large, seem to be sharply divided on the issue of a deed exchange. Listening to those who favor it and those who don't, one can't escape the conclusion that everyone is talking at cross purposes.

One camp is anxious over the prospect that Florida courts will upset half a century of expectations -- and express promises by Escambia County -- that island leases would be exempt from ad valorem taxes. They argue that if the courts are going to ignore that history and rewrite the deal at the urging of the very same county that made those promises, then it's only fair they be given deeds to their property like every other ad valorem taxpayer.

The other camp looks at the history of Santa Rosa Island and Escambia County politics, and with good reason worries that a deed exchange will eventually lead, just as the PNJ editorial warns, to 'corralling' the public like cattle into the county's few, relatively modest-sized public beaches.

Both sides may be right. At the root of all this agitation, quite obviously, is fear that the Florida courts are about to fiddle with a status quo worked out nearly fifty years ago to the benefit of all, after considerable effort by county voters (as detailed in Bowden's book), the state legislature, and Congress. That status quo has worked amazingly well to date.

Normally, the courts can be trusted to apply a legal doctrine so often short-handed as "stare decisis." In its original, full Latin meaning the doctrine is articulated as "stare decisis et non quieta movere," which translates as "stand by and do not disturb what is settled." Part of the genius of the common law is that this doctrine helps greatly to foster economic growth and political stability.

For now, what is settled is that no one can buy or sell any part of Santa Rosa Island. Long term leases are allowed, though at the cost of requiring leaseholders to build improvements on public land at their own expense and submit to other Island Authority design and building code restrictions. The leasehold property lines, moreover, ensure widespread public access to the unique 40-mile unbroken stretch of white sand beach.

In exchange, leaseholders have been assured of an exemption from ad valorem taxes. While there has been a healthy market for buying and selling those leases it has been, no doubt, at a far more affordable rate than would be the case if residents and businesses could claim absolute ownership of the fee.

Take away the widespread fear that the Florida courts are about to violate the stare decisis doctrine in the pending Pensacola Beach tax lawsuits, and you eliminate all this agitation. Leaseholders could relax, secure in the knowledge that their county-induced expectations will be honored. The market for selling leaseholds and improving properties would return to normal.

And the public would be relieved, too, knowing that the original federal deed's wise restrictions against over-development of Santa Rosa Island will be enforced. Pensacola Beach would remain open to public use.

On the other hand, if the courts "disturb what is settled" by allowing the county to break its word and impose ad valorem taxes, not only leaseholders but the public at large will be the losers.


BeachLover said...

Both of the subject editorials, especially the "Don't rush" piece, are full of misstatements of fact, amounting to scare tactics. Just one example is the reference to Gulf-front property lines' extension to the mean high tide mark. Simply does not apply on Pensacola Beach, where the southernmost lot lines are clearly defined and are well north of the Gulf.

Too many others errors to list here. On a day when I absolutely didn't have time to do it, I felt compelled to send a lengthy letter to the editorial staff decrying the misinformation as providing just that much more fuel for mainland resentment and fear, if not hysteria.

Anonymous said...

Pull your head out of the sand. What on earth makes you think that they county can't add lots seaward of existing lots?
And then make those new lot lines run to the high tide mark?
And maybe cutting off any of all the current public access ways to the beach?
Gulf front condos all the way.