The recent decision by the appellate court reversing Chris Jones’ taxing of a parcel at Portofino is not what it appears to be. It involves one single parcel of land that had a unique non-recurring lease. All other beach leases that automatically renew will be taxed.
You would be hard pressed to find a single lawyer who would agree with what the courts allowed Escambia County to do. From the original conveyance of Santa Rosa Island to Escambia County in 1947 the county was prohibited from selling any portion of the island. It was supposed to remain for public use. But, there was plenty of land so, Escambia County had the legislature create the Santa Rosa Island Authority to lease some of the property on the island.
In the 1950s and 60s, Escambia County, through the SRIA, created the legal fiction they would later disavow. They granted 99 year leases renewable for 99 years and thereby complied with the deed restriction of the Federal government that prohibited sales. People leased the land from the SRIA and one of the selling points was there would not be any property taxes because it was a lease. And so it went for year and years…
Then Escambia County decided that too many people were building nice homes on their leased land and they should pay property taxes. Escambia County decided to renege on these written lease agreements and the property appraiser assessed property taxes on leased land which seemed absurd at the time. No one thought they could get away with it. But they did. The appellate courts said what they did was okay. Then Escambia County taxed the land, as well. No one thought they could get away with that, either but — they did. The appellate courts said it was just fine.
Now the issue is what to do with the leases. Property leaseholders on the beach are now paying both lease payments and property taxes. Escambia County takes the position that they need the money and that should allow them to renege on written leases. No one thought they would get away with it — no one but the elected officials who decided to do it.
Good lesson for us all and those who might decide to move here. Be wary of any deal you make with local government, especially Escambia County.