Editorial from Pensacola News Journal Editorial Board published Oct. 8, 2017…
No matter what side you’re on in the contentious battle over a Senate bill that would allow private ownership on area beaches, one thing is certain. This is federal government action designed to intervene in a local government issue. For that reason alone, Senators Nelson and Rubio should scrap the legislation and allow local citizens to work out issues of taxes, fees and fairness on Santa Rosa Island.
It is unnecessary and inappropriate for federal officials to impose a sweeping major change in the historic status quo of public ownership of a natural treasure like Santa Rosa Island. Especially when the central premise for the bill comes from demands for fairness in county-regulated fees and taxes. We don’t use acts of Congress to solve disputes over parking meter rates. Nor should we look to federal officials to resolve questionable allegations of unfairness in a local tax issue.
Conservative backers of the bill such as Rubio and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz ought to explain to voters exactly why a federal government that should butt out of health care ought to be making sweeping land management decisions for citizens of Escambia County. If that’s not “big government,” then what is?
For Nelson’s part, after initially backing the bill, he has since raised doubts and called for revisions that would put preservation restrictions on Navarre Beach similar to what the bill calls for on Pensacola Beach. Specifically, Nelson’s spokesman said, “(He) still supports the overall purpose of the bill, but wants to add some additional assurances that Navarre Pass will stay closed and conservation areas preserved.” Nelson is right to call for increased preservation guarantees, but still misses other troubling questions with this bill.
Currently, Escambia County citizens own the Navarre portion of the island and lease it to Santa Rosa County. The proposed legislation would transfer ownership of that land to Santa Rosa, whose officials have rejected the sort of preservation restrictions that the bill contains for Escambia’s portion.
Therein lies the inherent flaw in treating the island as dual territories subject to different standards and protections. The barrier island is a highly unique and sensitive ecosystem. Tides and winds and forces of nature do not recognize imaginary dotted lines or arbitrary dictates and ambitions of neighboring county governments. Public ownership of the island was intended as a protective measure for a rare natural environment with a larger sense of posterity in mind.
Undoing that historic public ownership should require direct and widespread public input from all the citizens who have a stake in the island. That has not been the case at all with this proposed legislation.
Furthermore, before any such move should be considered, citizen stakeholders ought to be provided with a concrete financial analysis of a transfer to private ownership. Neither county nor federal officials have shown Escambia County citizens any hard numbers of what this legislation would mean for taxpayers’ bottom line. Since when are real estate transactions negotiated without some specific appraisals, assessments and dollar amounts on paper?
How much would be gained or lost in tax and fee collection?
How much is all this publicly owned land worth?
Do our commissioners, representatives or senators even have any idea?
We spend thousands on economic impact studies for everything from hockey to road closures in this county. So where’s the science-based economic report to justify the transfer of ownership that this legislation proposes? Show citizens the numbers that deserve their support.
Additionally, Gulf Islands National Seashore has historically been a leading voice for stewardship and a watchman over the entire island. In the past, Seashore officials have rightly opposed a Navarre pass, private ownership and increased development due to the fact that on such a sensitive sliver of sand, changes on one end of the island will inevitably alter the other end. Cut a pass in Navarre and you’ll feel it in Fort Pickens.
Senator Nelson and Rubio should look back at Gulf Island’s historic positions on the issue and seek direct, candid input from National Park leaders and rangers who have become deeply acquainted with these issues over the years. Their opinions are significant and they know the island better than most.
But in the end, the hundreds of thousands of Escambia citizens who own the island ought to decide this issue. The island is their treasure and heritage. And with all due respect to our federal officials, Escambia citizens know the beach better than senators from South Florida or a congressman from Fort Walton.
The beach belongs to locals. And with this overreaching legislation, our federal officials are trespassing.
Link to the original editorial here: PNJ Editorial 10-08-2017