Appeals court rules in favor of condo owners in Pensacola Beach property tax controversy

Article Courtesy of The Pensacola News Journal
By Jim Little

Published October 15, 2017


An appeals court has ruled that condo owners of two Pensacola Beach developments do not have to pay property taxes on their condo developments' land as it is owned by Escambia County.

The Florida First District Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 decision Wednesday that the county can only tax improvements on the land, and not the land itself, if the 99-year lease on the land is not automatically renewing.

The ruling has the implication to eliminate millions of dollars in tax revenue the county has collected since 2011.

Ed Fleming, an attorney representing condo owners, said he hopes the ruling ends the issue over how the county handles property taxes on Santa Rosa Island.

At issue in the case was the language of the 99-year leases from the county to beach residents.

Judges on a previous case over leases on Santa Rosa County's portion of the island found that because the 99-year leases automatically renewed, the land could be treated for tax purposes as private land.

But the language of the leases in the Portofino Island Resort and the Beach Club Towers properties calls for terms of any lease renewal to be "renegotiated" when the lease expires.

Judge Thomas D. Winokur wrote in his opinion that because the leases called for a renegotiation and were not automatically renewing, the Escambia County Property Appraiser's Office could only tax the improvements to the land and not the land itself.

Todd Harris, an attorney for the condo owners, said the opinion rejected the county's argument that the land was subject to tax because it became condominium development.

"This opinion does nothing more than apply the plain language to the controlling statutes," Harris said.

In 2011, the county collected about $2 million in tax revenue from condo land at Pensacola Beach, according to a public document from the Santa Rosa Island Authority.

Fleming said he is representing about 20 other condo homeowners associations in lawsuits against the county who have the same lease language as the Portofino and Beach Club condos.

While leases in Santa Rosa County have the automatically renewing language, Fleming said the majority of leases on Pensacola Beach in Escambia County do not contain the automatically renewing language.

Chris Jones, county property appraiser, said he was still reviewing the ruling.

"Respectfully, we disagree," Jones said. "We thought the judge in the dissenting opinion got it right. Unfortunately, we needed 2-1 in our favor. We didn't get that. We think that he brought up valid points that may be something that we want to appeal to a higher court."