Ownership of Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island was deeded by the U.S. government to Escambia County in 1946 with the condition that land be not be resold, only leased. As a result, all of the homes, businesses and high-rises on Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach sit on parcels that have been leased (or sub-leased) from Escambia County on 99-year contracts; the county remains the sole landowner. This has raised several debates regarding the levying of ad valorum property taxes on the island and the benefits of leases versus private ownership.
Since the 1821 transfer of Florida to the United States, the 8,000-acre Santa Rosa Island has changed hands several times. The entire island (except for the U.S. Army Coastal Artillery Post at Fort Pickens) was sold by the War Department to Escambia County in 1927 for about $10,000, and the county took possession of the deed two years later, on April 19, 1929. Ownership reverted back to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1939 when the county, still reeling from the Great Depression, could not afford to develop it. In 1946, due to the efforts of Congressman Bob Sikes, the portion of the island between Pickens and Navarre Beach was transferred back to Escambia County. (The remaining easternmost three miles, known as Okaloosa Island, were deeded to Okaloosa County for $4,000 the same year.) The following conditions were specified in Escambia County's 1947 Deed of Conveyance:
…the above described land shall be retained by the said Escambia County and be used by it for such purposes as it shall deem to be in the public interest or be leased by it from time to time in whole or in part or parts to such persons and for such purposes as it shall deem to be in the public interest and upon such terms and conditions as it shall fix and always be subject to regulation by said county whether leased or not leased, but never to be otherwise disposed of or conveyed by it;…
In 1956 Escambia County leased the entirety of Navarre Beach to neighboring Santa Rosa County for 99 years, at a rate of $100 a year, on the condition that Santa Rosa would build a second bridge to the island. Originally the land was still within the boundaries of Escambia County, but in 1992 State Representative Bo Johnson worked with State Senate Dean W. D. Childers to redraw county lines to include Navarre Beach within Santa Rosa County, though it remained under Escambia County ownership. A 1993 resolution by the Escambia County Commission offered to support Santa Rosa if they sought a deed of ownership.
In 2003, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Gordon Goodin renewed calls to allow private ownership of property on the island, which if approved by Congress would be done with a one-time title transfer fee. Later that year, Escambia County Commissioner Tom Banjanin advocated redrawing county lines to take back Navarre Beach if leaseholders were granted title to their properties. "I can't see giving away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property that belongs to Escambia County residents," he said. "I move to get the county line moved back again so we'll get those mega-bucks when they become available." His motion failed for a lack of a second, but the Commission voted 3-2 at the same August 21 meeting for a resolution opposing Santa Rosa's plan.
- William L. Post. Deceit Beach: The True Story of Deception by Escambia County and their agent, the Santa Rosa Island Authority, and how the Florida Supreme Court failed to protect the victims. Trent's Prints & Publishing, 2008.
- Santa Rosa Island — A History (Part 1)
- J. Earle Bowden. "Neither county putting 'public' first." Pensacola News Journal, August 30, 2003.
- "Official: Give island residents title to land." Pensacola News Journal, February 6, 2003.
- "Escambia opposition could derail Santa Rosa's bid to grant beach titles." Pensacola News Journal, August 2, 2003.
- "Banjanin: Expand county." Pensacola News Journal, August 22, 2003.