STATEMENT FOR THE RECORD, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, FOR THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES, SUBCOMMITTEE ON FEDERAL LANDS AND ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION CONCERNING H.R. 2954, TO AUTHORIZE ESCAMBIA COUNTY, FLORIDA, TO CONVEY CERTAIN PROPERTY THAT WAS FORMERLY PART OF SANTA ROSA ISLAND NATIONAL MONUMENT AND THAT WAS CONVEYED TO ESCAMBIA COUNTY SUBJECT TO RESTRICTIONS ON USE AND RECONVEYANCE.
Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 2954, a bill to authorize Escambia County, Florida, to convey certain property that was formerly part of Santa Rosa Island National Monument and that was conveyed to Escambia County subject to restrictions on use and reconveyance.
The Department could only support H.R. 2954 if amended in accordance with this testimony.
H.R. 2954 would provide authority to Escambia County to convey property, subject to certain conditions, that it received from the Federal government in 1947. The bill is intended to resolve a longstanding land use issue for the county. However, the Department would like to ensure that this bill does not result in the removal of protection for the undeveloped lands that remain from the 1947 conveyance.
H.R. 2954 would supersede the Act of July 30, 1946, which deauthorized the Santa Rosa Island National Monument in the State of Florida and authorized the transfer of the Federal lands administered by the Department of the Interior to Escambia County. The Act of 1946 placed restrictions on the use of the lands, specifying that they must be used for purposes deemed in the public interest, and that they may not be conveyed by Escambia County except to the Federal government or the State of Florida. Pursuant to the 1946 Act, on January 15, 1947, the lands on Santa Rosa Island were transferred to Escambia County. In 1971, the Gulf Islands National Seashore was established which includes much of Santa Rosa Island. Many significant natural and cultural resources exist on the island, including Fort Pickens, several rare and endangered species, and many miles of beach. This park has also proven to be an important recreation resource, with more than five million visitors annually coming to the seashore.
H.R. 2954 pertains to those portions of Santa Rosa Island excluded from the boundary of Gulf Islands National Seashore: a nine-mile segment in Escambia County known as Pensacola Beach and a four-mile segment in Santa Rosa County known as Navarre Beach. In 1956, Escambia County leased Navarre Beach to Santa Rosa County. The State of Florida modified the county boundaries in 1991, placing Navarre Beach within the jurisdiction of Santa Rosa County. However, the Navarre Beach lands remained in Escambia County ownership due to the restrictions on reconveyance contained in the 1946 Act. Communities have been developed at Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach under leases granted by the counties. These are mostly privately owned residential structures.
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, H.R. 2954 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.
Over the years, there have been various proposals to dredge a channel through Santa Rosa Island at Navarre Beach to promote further development. Any dredge and fill activities to open a channel through the island, and the construction of associated bulkheads, groins, revetments and jetties to sustain this feature, would likely have significant adverse impacts upon Gulf Islands National Seashore. Existing estuaries, wetlands, water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat and natural communities, and endangered species would likely be substantially degraded or destroyed. Interference with the natural lateral transport of sand along the barrier island beaches would not only have significant effects upon park resources, but would also contribute to substantial erosion of public beaches leading to costly proposals to stabilize and restore the beaches. Furthermore, we are concerned that construction of this proposed channel would restrict public access to adjacent portions of Santa Rosa Island currently within Eglin Air Force Base (AFB). Management of the Eglin AFB lands on Santa Rosa Island will eventually revert to Gulf Islands National Seashore in accordance with P.L. 91-660 and section 2872 of P.L. 109-163. Unless specifically prohibited, this bill could potentially permit this channel with its substantial alteration and impairment of the island resources and restriction of public access.
Approximately 140 acres in Navarre Beach between the Navarre Bridge and Eglin AFB contain a 99-year leased parcel that is zoned for commercial development and would allow for virtually any type of commercial development including a high rise resort, shopping complex, or commercial marina. These leased lands are currently pristine and surrounded by other lands managed as a county park providing for beach access, use and enjoyment. We are concerned that the changes in land use restrictions proposed in this bill could potentially lead to inappropriate development of this important property. The leaseholder has inquired about exchanging this leased property for comparable leasable property within the developed zone of Navarre Beach. The NPS wholly supports this proposal and encourages Santa Rosa County to pursue this and to rezone this parcel as conservation/recreation similar to the surrounding county park lands.
Santa Rosa Island has long been recognized as an important public resource. The intent of the Act of 1946 was to prevent inappropriate development and to ensure the availability of these pristine beaches for public recreation and enjoyment. When portions of Santa Rosa Island were originally conveyed by the United States to Escambia County, it was on the condition that the property be used in perpetuity in the public interest. We do not object to certain developed lands being conveyed into private ownership, thus allowing the counties the benefit of having the lands on the tax rolls and allowing the federal government the benefit of any profits from the conveyances. However, we believe that the undeveloped portions of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach should be excluded from commercial or residential development, retained in public ownership, and managed in their natural condition for wildlife habitat and guaranteed public access and use.
To ensure protection of the undeveloped portions of Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, we recommend amending the bill to accomplish the following:
1. 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 August 1, 2013.
2. 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 August 1, 2013 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
We would be happy to provide the committee with recommended language for these amendments.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes our prepared remarks.