Proponents of the beach bill claim that nothing in the bill itself has any negative impact on the beaches of Santa Rosa Island. That statement is not only false on its face, but it neglects to take into account what sociologists, legal scholars, philosophers, and software engineers recognize as inherent when dealing with complex systems. The law of unintended consequences serves as a warning that any intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.
The intended benefit of S. 1073 is not solely to grant fee simple title to leaseholders in Escambia County but also to protect the public, recreation, conservation, and preservation land in and around Pensacola Beach. However, those conservation protections are not guaranteed in the ways outlined by the Department of the Interior in its recommendations on previous versions of the bill. The issues DOI found with the bills are described in this 2013 testimony:
“Our primary concerns lie with the lands within Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach that remain natural, in a pristine condition, and that provide vital wildlife habitat and have outstanding opportunities for public recreation. As written, this bill does not adequately define those areas to ensure they remain in public ownership, protected from development, and available for public use and enjoyment, as intended by the Act of July 30, 1946. Specifically, the county resolutions referenced by the bill do not identify current planning documents by date for both counties, leaving land use zones subject to change, rezoning, and redefinition of management prescriptions and permitted uses. Further, if rezoned, nothing in this bill would prevent the sale of these lands for private ownership and development.”
Supporters of the current legislation point to this preservation section of the bill as evidence that these conservation/preservation areas will be held in perpetuity. The Department of the Interior, much more accustomed to dealing with land use legislation, obviously felt that the wording of the bill was insufficient to achieve the stated goal. This bill’s wording duplicates that of the 2013 and 2015 bills and is, once again, insufficient. And DOI made 4 recommendations which have not been incorporated:
- To assure public beach access in perpetuity, public parking and beach access corridors identified within the Escambia County and Santa Rosa County planning and land use documents as of August 1, 2013 (other than parking and beach facilities), should remain publicly owned and undeveloped. This could be accomplished by retaining the applicability of the reversionary clause from the Act of July 30, 1946, for those lands, and by specifically referencing in the bill the county planning and land use documents as they existed on the date the bills were introduced.
- Lands zoned “preservation” or “conservation/recreation” within the Escambia County and Santa Rosa County planning and land use documents as of August 1, 2013, should remain in public ownership and in preservation or conservation/recreation status in perpetuity. This, too, could be accomplished by retaining the applicability of the reversionary clause from the Act of July 30, 1946, for those lands, and by specifically referencing in the bill the county planning and land use documents as they existed on August 1, 2013. The language should include the definitions, management prescriptions and permitted activities for “preservation” and “conservation/recreation” zones in the county planning and land use documents as they existed on the date the bills were introduced, so that the terms cannot be redefined or reinterpreted at a later date. Further, the term “recreation” should be clarified to refer to passive recreation only for these lands.
- Authority should be provided for Gulf Island National Seashore to accept by donation conservation easements for the lands zoned preservation or conservation/recreation within Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island.
- There should be a prohibition on any dredge and fill permits that would allow for the construction of a channel through Santa Rosa Island, and the construction of associated jetties, groins, bulkheads or revetments, and the dredging or filling of any wetlands, estuaries, or embayments.
Using those recommendations as a guideline, this bill is worse for the island. Allowing Santa Rosa County the opportunity to remove all conservation/preservation protections is also an intended outcome, a benefit for which Santa Rosa County Commissioner Sam Parker voiced his appreciation on a morning radio show. Santa Rosa County, according to Parker, wants to be able to utilize all of their resources on the island. Apparently, he does not consider conservation, preservation, wildlife habitats, and maintaining a healthy island adequate utilization of the mile closest to Eglin AFB.
It’s difficult to discern if cutting off public access to the beaches is intended or unintended. As Commissioner Robinson pointed out recently, most lot lines stop behind the dune line, but there are several (as yet, there is no clear number) that extend to the water line. Given the contentious argument in Destin about hotels, condos, private residences, “private beaches,” and mean high water lines, I think many here would be averse to opening up a brand new legal can of worms.
Arguably, unintended consequences got us to the place where we are now. When the county advertised tax-free leases on the island in the middle of the last century, no one could have foreseen that the Florida legislature would pass a law opening the door to taxes on 99-year leases. But, they did. And no one could have foreseen that the Florida Supreme Court would issue multiple rulings upholding that law and declaring the responsibility of the equity-owner of the leasehold to pay them. But it did.
Escambia County has full responsibility for the entire island, whether it’s fully exercised or partially ceded to Santa Rosa County. We hold the legal title and we cannot wash our hands of the consequences, intended or unintended, of decisions that impact the whole island. Leaving open the possibility of another cut in the island would be irresponsible—environmentally, ecologically, and geologically. As Dr. James Morgan, a coastal geologist who extensively studied the island wrote in 1988 about a proposal to recreate Navarre Pass, “Santa Rosa Island is one of the few barrier islands that is not on the endangered list –let us not deliberately institute a project that might put it there.”
In the event that the current legislation fails, we respectfully ask that you place a referendum on the 2018 ballot and allow the 318,000 Congressionally-appointed stewards of Santa Rosa Island the opportunity to have their voices heard in this matter.
— Blog Attributed to Vicki Neapolitan as addressed to Escambia County Commissioners