Saturday, May 10, 2008

Deceit Beach: Reply to a Critic


We don't visit message boards much, not even our own. So, as it happens, we learned of an anonymous comment about William L. Post's new book, Deceit Beach, from a loyal reader who keeps one eye on this blog and another on the message boards of the Pensacola News Journal.

Essentially, the message board commentator grumbles that because Post is not a lawyer he shouldn't be writing a book "which claims the government deceived leaseholders." This is quite frivolous, as we will show in a moment. First, however, let's give the anonymous critic his moment in the sun:
To claim that advertisements or other parol evidence somehow carries any weight in a legal lease is naive and wrong. The merger doctrine basically... says that ads, verbal promises, merge into the deed or lease, which requires specific language in those conveyance documents to reserve rights set forth in other documents or representations. If the leaseholds were never to be taxed, the lease should have had specific language stating the same.
The short answer to this is that Post has written a history of the Pensacola Beach "tax free" leasehold policy, not a legal brief. His history is written for a general audience, not a lawyers' seminar. As he explains in the book, Post sets out to describe the applicable main legal principles, both for and against taxation of Pensacola Beach leasehold interests, to give context to the historical facts he has uncovered.

It's completely appropriate that in Deceit Beach Mr. Post declines to go into excruciating, lawyer-like detail. For every legal doctrine like "merger" that someone can point to, you can be sure there will be exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, and exceptions to those exceptions, ad nauseum.

And, after all, the market for densely written legal writing is confined mostly to the handful of appellate judges who are paid big bucks by the taxpayers to read the turgid tomes of attorneys. It's a nasty job, but someone has to do it.

It also needs to be said that Post gets the general legal principles right. Lawyers are not the only scholars who can write a history of governmental policy.

Take the message board writer's "merger doctrine." Perhaps the leading case in Florida on the so-called "merger doctrine" is Milu v. Duke, 204 So.2d 31 (3d DCA 1967). Although not from the highest court in the state, in real estate cases where the issue is raised Duke continues to be the most-cited precedent in modern Florida appellate court decisions for this proposition:
It is a general rule that preliminary agreements and understandings relative to the sale of property usually merge in the deed executed pursuant thereto. * * *

However, there are exceptions to the merger rule. The rule that acceptance of a deed tendered in performance of a contract to convey land merges or extinguishes the covenants and stipulations contained in the contract does not apply to those provisions of the antecedent contract which the parties do not intend to be incorporated in the deed, or which are not necessarily performed or satisfied by the execution and delivery of the stipulated conveyance.
[emphasis added]
In other words, if there is a promise made which is to be performed after the deed has been issued the merger doctrine will not apply. As the late, great contracts expert, Prof. Charles Corbin, wrote in his seminal treatise, with all of the exceptions that have been endorsed by the courts the merger doctrine has become "merely a 'handy' phrase, of convenient uncertainty and obscurity, that is used so as to avoid the necessity of clear thinking and accurate analysis.” 6 Corbin On Contracts § 1319 (1962).

Moreover, as Post also points out in his book, the law is not so blind to common sense as to endorse outright fraud every time a con man is clever enough to include a merger clause in his sales (or lease) forms.

To be sure, the purely legal discussion in Post's book may appear to the eye of some lawyers to be the least satisfactory part of the book. The main reason for this is that Post intentionally doesn't spend a lot of time or ink delving into complex legal doctrines or fashioning endless lawyer-like arguments, counter-arguments, and surrebuttals about the nuances of prior legal precedents or why they might or might not be applicable to the Pensacola Beach situation.

Quite evidently, that was not his purpose in writing the book. Even so, the purely legal argument passages of Post's book, in themselves, add something valuable to the debate. In those passages Post shows fairly conclusively how his historical research undermines key factual premises adopted by, or openly assumed to be true in, the Florida court opinions he criticizes.

And that, manifestly, is the main purpose of his book: to document the true history and chronology of Escambia County's Pensacola Beach lease tax policy, which he has done meticulously, and to counter-pose the historical facts with the erroneous gloss Florida courts have slapped on that history in their published opinions.

Thus, Post's book does something more subtle -- and far more valuable -- than repeat stale legal arguments. At several key points in his book he adverts to the over-arching legal arguments on the other side, briefly describes their main theme, and then argues that, regardless, given the historical facts he has laid out one truth is ineluctable: for twenty years Escambia County and the SRIA deliberately advertised tax-free leaseholds -- in some instances (like the one illustrated at the top of this article) expressly avowing the exemption would be "permanent policy" -- without disclosing that the county had actual or constructive knowledge that those leaseholds could be taxed at any time the county decided to change its mind.

Escambia County and the SRIA never mentioned this to the potential public of leasehold purchasers (hence the title, "Deceit Beach"). Indeed, during the formative 20 year period from 1949 to 1969 in a number of instances that Post documents, county officials went so far as to claim that taxes were "included" in the lease fees.

This is not a legal point; it is a fact of history. Post is writing a history here, not a lawyer's legal brief. And, thank goodness for that. It so happens, as he ably points out in the book, this history exposes critical factual errors in the Florida supreme court's prior tax case decisions.

As any lawyer should acknowledge, one of the greatest frustrations practicing lawyers experience is to see an appeals court fudge, or ignore, or completely distort key facts of a case, and then use that erroneous recitation of facts to justify application of a legal principle which becomes decisive of the case.

Lawyer or not, in his book William L. Post has exposed just that sort of key factual error in the Florida Supreme Court case of Straughn v. Camp, 293 So.2d 689 (Fla.1974) and others that followed. As the author admits, there is no way to prove conclusively that the Straughn case would have come out in favor of leaseholders had the court gotten the facts right. But it certainly raises serious questions about the validity of the holding in that case and its progeny as guiding precedent.

Assuredly, Mr. Post could have happily collaborated with a lawyer if it had been his intent to write something other than a history of the tax exempt leasehold. But it wasn't. It seems to us a ridiculous criticism to complain that he didn't write the book someone else wants.

For that matter, if he had intended to write a different book, Post might have collaborated with an economist to analyze the historical and contemporary market forces and policy considerations behind leasing beach property versus assessing ad valorem taxes on a beach deed. Certainly, the market dynamics have changed dramatically on Pensacola Beach in the past fifty years. They assuredly will be changing again, thanks to global warming, increased hurricane intensity, and ever-rising property insurance premiums. But it's no accident that some of the more recent residential single family dwelling lease fees on Pensacola Beach are equal to, or even exceed, what mainlanders pay in ad valorem taxes for comparable property.

We also can envision yet another very different book, a sociological study. Why is it, for example, that there seems to be such a disproportionate number of aging trust fund babies who own Pensacola Beach leases? How does it happen that school enrollment at the top-rated Pensacola Beach Elementary School each year seems to include an ever-rising number of students who commute from off the island? What accounts for the manifest trend of diminishing family residences and increasing numbers of non-residential rental spaces replacing them, a trend well documented in detailed U.S. census numbers for Pensacola Beach over the last three decades?

For that matter, why not a book about the environmental and public health issues that led Escambia County to offer tax-free leases in the first place? After all, one substantial reason the island was not attractive to any but a handful of pioneers in the '50s and '60s was fear of polio, the intractable mosquito infestation problem, the primitive condition of water, sewers, and roads, and the slower-than-most-folk-remember adoption of home air conditioning.

The short canal-like area now overgrown with vegetation along the Sound (still visible from the tallest dunes east of Portofino) remains a monument to the fear, greed, and despair of Escambia County officials in the '50s and '60s as they tried everything they could think of to make Pensacola Beach into a viable economic asset. Those man-made rectangular water canals were dug, so informed sources have told us, to be a "mosquito attractor" in hopes of reducing the insect infestation so the island could be developed.

None of these, of course, was the book Post wanted to write. So what? Let those who come after build on his work, be they economists, sociologists, public health specialists, urban planners -- or lawyers for that matter.

First, however, they need to get the facts right. William L. Post has done that. His book will be, as we have said, a must-have for anyone who lives on Pensacola Beach or wants to really know or write about this most unique island community.




9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Seems to me this is not about taxes or law etc. It is about a county that LIES.

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Anonymous said...

Bill Post should get a Nobel Prize for his voluntary diligent work to record and expose the hypocrisy and now legally proven deceit of both Christopher Jones (with his personal family vendetta) and Escambia County. Having been taken in hook-line and sinker by the no-tax ever lie in 2003, I have just, finally in 2016, been able to sell my PB home at break-even following years of beach price depression for many reasons including the Escambia Tax Rip-Off. Thankfully, I am out of the Pensacola Beach "mess" and gone, never to return!