By Jeremy Morrison
BCC CHAMBERS—After months of hammering out the details with local beach advocates, Escambia County officials have passed an ordinance offering protections for Santa Rosa Island. The formal moved followed the passage of a non-binding voter referendum affirming such protections against over development last November.
Commissioner Robert Bender, who oversees Pensacola Beach in his District 4, said he felt like the final ordinance was palatable to the various parties plugged into the conversation and offered the beach the protections necessary to prevent it from slipping toward more trafficked and developed territory, such as Panama City Beach or Destin down the coast.
“I do think that this is the protection we need for Pensacola to preserve it,” Bender said. “To preserve our access, to preserve the way it is today.”
The ordinance, like, the referendum, affirms a 1947 federal deed, which requires that the county manage the island for the benefit of he public and not sell off private parcels, as a failed 2017 federal legislative effort spearheaded by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) sought to allow for. The new ordinance also preserves conservation and recreation lands and includes a building cap that renders the island built-out, with the exception of a few limited properties.
The commissioners’ public gallery was full of beach advocates wearing yellow shirts in a show of support for the passage of the ordinance. The wave of yellow — vocal and persistent — has been ever present throughout the discussion, or what Save Pensacola Beach President Dianne Krumel called a “long, hard fought battle.”
“I’m so excited we have reached this moment,” Krumel said Thursday, reading Bender’s yellow necktie as a “good sign.” “I see the end of this battle on the horizon. I think it’s going to happen here tonight.”
Krumel said the ordinance included the necessary language to offer the beach a “layer of protection,” and that it adequately reflected the “will of the people” expressed through the passage of last year’s non-binding referendum.
“The proposed ordinance will make it more difficult for any future elected public officials to steal our beach,” said Krumel, who launched Save Pensacola Beach and fought for the referendum and ordinance in response to the 2017 effort to pass federal legislation allowing individuals to own the properties they currently hold on recurring 99-year leases.
It was obvious ahead of Thursday’s commission meeting that the beach ordinance had all the support it needed. The new ordinance — which passed on a 5-0 public hearing vote — had been discussed earlier in the day during an agenda review session, with Commission Chairman Lumon May commending Bender — “you’ll get a standing ovation from me when you and Dianne hug, kiss and probably do things you shouldn’t do publicly” — and commenting that he was glad the heated, long-running discussion was wrapping up with an easy vote.
“I’m just glad we want have a long public forum,” the chairman said.
Though the ordinance’s passage was a forgone conclusion, the evening’s public gallery was no less filled with yellow than usual. May noted that their prospects were solid and suggested that not everyone needed to take their three-minute public speaking allotment.
“If you want to just wave a show of support you can,” May said.
While most of the beach advocates bowed out of public speaking, there were a few aside from Krumel that took to the public lectern. They quoted the Rolling Stones. They talked about seeking refuge on the beach after their father was transferred to Pensacola from 1962 Cuba.
One speaker, Terry Preston, president of the group Pensacola Beach Advocates, which supported the ownership concept, talked about how she didn’t accept the premise of the referendum, but did appreciate some of the protections ultimately offered in the ordinance. She also thanked Bender for “keeping his cool” in the face of “hateful rhetoric and threats”; though she did not elaborate on what this was in reference to, it’s possible it was a nod to what Commissioner Doug Underhill has previously described as the yellow-shirts’ “antifa behavior,” specifically telling Krumel she’d “have to trade in that yellow shirt for a black mask.”
After the commission’s unanimous passage of the ordinance, the crowd of yellow shirts stood and filed out of the public chambers.
“Thank you so much! This is so awesome!” Krumel yelled. “Thank you for listing to the people!”
“The wine bar and Intermission is going to make a lot of money tonight,” laughed Chairman May, as the celebratory beach advocates headed into the downtown evening.