Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Commissioners Vote for Deeds

"Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer— except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs."
-- George Orwell, Animal Farm
At the special two-county commissioners meeting we mentioned the other day, Escambia and Santa Rosa county commissioners approved a formal resolution asking U.S. Representative Jeff Miller to sponsor legislation authorizing the issuance of fee simple deeds to Santa Rosa Island beach property. Presently, owing to restrictions in the original federal deed of Santa Rosa Island to Escambia County, all property on Pensacola Beach is held under leases, most of them for a renewable term of 99 years.

Jamie Page had the early afternoon story yesterday ("Commissioners Push Beach Ownership") on the PNJ web site. This morning's PNJ repeats much, but not all, of that earlier dispatch ("Lease Fight Heads to D.C.").

Among all ten combined commissioners, the lone dissenters were two from Escambia County. One of them was Kevin White from the northern section of the county. White has been outspoken in wanting to preserve public access on the beach.

The other dissenter was Grover C. Robinson IV. Robinson represents District 4, which includes Pensacola Beach. He, too, has expressed concern about maintaining open public spaces on the beach. Robinson also has been popular with, and trusted by, a large majority of beach residents.

Commissioner Robinson voiced objections that not enough was known about the details of any deed-for-taxes proposition. Until the specifics are known, he said, it would be imprudent to support such a move; it could turn out to the disadvantage of both beach residents and mainlanders.

Also speaking against the resolution was long-time SRIA board member Dr. Thomas Campanella. Campanella has been a reliable voice for Pensacola Beach residents since first being elected by them in 2002. In brief remarks to the commissioners during the open forum, he expressed concern that opening the beach to unrestricted deeds of beach lots could lead directly to over-development on the beach.

After the meeting, Campanella told us that he fears "greed is behind" the resolution. He explained that the SRIA has been under pressure from the county for years to allow more intense development, greater densities, and higher revenues from residents and businesses. If the county persists, he said, "they're going to ruin the very resource that we need."

Voting in favor of the deeds resolution, among others, were Escambia County Commissioners Mike Whitehead and Gene Valentino. Whitehead has a long history of opposing beach resident intiatives and advocating for abolition of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. Valentino pretty much votes as if he were Whitehead's sock puppet.

So, what's going on here? Beach residents who want the guarantee of a deed if they're ordered to pay real estate taxes have to be nervous when natural predators like Whitehead and Valentino claim to be "helping" them and proven allies like Robinson and Campanella are on the other side.

The short answer is that we'll just have to wait and see. Much depends on the exact wording of any legislation congressman Miller is able to shepherd through Congress. It seems unlikely that any legislation Miller sponsors can be approved by Congress before it recesses for the year. So, equally important will be the composition of the Board of Commissioners if and when the time finally arrives to implement any deed-exchange.

As always, the future of the beach is in the grip of those we elect to run county government. Among a list of horribles one can foresee is the distinct possibility -- one which was advocated by former SRIA board member Bill Griffith about a dozen years ago, although he later renounced the idea as having been inspired by Mr. Whitehead -- that any residents seeking a deed in lieu of a long-term lease should be required to make a one time payment equal to 65 percent or more of the assessed value of the land and improvements.

Another IED that could be hidden along the roadway is Whitehead's long-held ambition to abolish the Santa Rosa Island Authority altogether. The SRIA has directly governed the beach for nearly sixty years. While its efforts to preserve the beach from unsustainable development have not been an unalloyed success, on the whole the island's governing authority has been far more eco-friendly and attuned to island residents' and business needs than Escambia County commissioners.

Congressman Miller, himself, could allay many of these fears if he makes a sincere effort to enlist knowledgeable beach residents and their representatives, like Campanella and Robinson, in the process of drafting the legislation. There are at hand on the beach a number of knowledgeable people -- lawyers, judges, real property finance experts, former legislators, urban growth experts, public administration specialists, environmentalists, and others -- who could be of service to the congressman as he drafts the legislation.

We will soon see if Congressman Miller calls on them, or instead takes his marching orders from our new-found beach "friends" like commissioners Whitehead and Valentino.

1 comment:

Chris Olson said...

This is a good summary of the politics behind the Santa Rosa Island property rights issue.