An $850 million County easement purchase near Whiting Field is raising questions about just what exactly taxpayers are getting for their money.
Santa Rosa Commissioners voted this morning to buy two easements, which restrict housing development, near Whiting Field. Owners keep fee simple title to the land and can utilize it for military-compatible operations like agriculture.
The Navy’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program partially funds the easements. The Navy pays 75% and the County covers the remaining 25% of the cost. Federal and County taxpayers have already spent millions on 25 similar purchases near Whiting. Another 13 easement purchases are pending.
But some residents are asking if landowners who bought Whiting area property after development was restricted should receive the easement payouts without handing title over to taxpayers.
A 2003 Santa Rosa County Joint Land Use Study (JLUS) initiated a program to limit development around Whiting. That program recommended buying land and development rights on parcels near the base.
Since then, a number of adjacent parcels have been purchased, despite the fact that they were now zoned for limited development. The purchases raised concerns that some buyers may be acquiring the land to resell “easements” to the government.
Commissioner Bob Cole echoed that concern during Monday’s Commission meeting. He asked County staff to provide information on where exactly one of the properties was located. The information was not included in public backup documentation.
“I’m certainly 100 percent in favor of protecting Whiting Field, we all know how critical that is,” Cole said. “I’ve just got a concern these properties are being bought up knowing we’re going to buy around Whiting Field.”
“We announced to the world in 2002 that we were going to buy properties around Whiting Field,” Milton resident Jerry Couey remarked to the Board.
“We have had a couple of these [properties] that were purchased in 2004 to 2006; and I’m sorry but I have to call foul on those. I think we should know when these properties were bought last.”
A 249.57 acre parcel, with a $650,000 easement cost, was last purchased in October 2005 for $1.6 million, according to the County.
Why not just buy the land outright? Couey asked the Board on Monday.
“Should Whiting Field leave, where’s my money?” he remarked.
County Attorney Roy Andrews and Whiting spokesperson Randy Roy, Thursday, both affirmed that the easements could be annulled if the Navy mission changes.
“The Navy could release the easement if they no longer had a need for it,” Andrews noted. “That would be up to the Navy.”
Roy said the Navy has relinquished easements in other locations where the military mission has changed.
That would leave taxpayers holding the bag, Couey said.
“That landowner is going to keep my money, and will no longer be encumbered,” he observed.
“That’s the unfairness of this issue to me…I would rather spend a little more money and buy the property outright than I would to have this conservation easement where, a, none of our taxpayers can walk on that property; b, we can’t do anything with it; and c, if Whiting Field goes away we just lost a million dollars – or $650 [thousand] on that one. Each time we do this, I just don’t like to be encumbered by these, I think we should own them outright.”
Roy said the Navy would still participate in the REPI program if the County decided to buy full title to the land. According to Andrews, the Navy will pay 75% of the easement value, not the full land value. Title would go to the County, and the Navy would buy the easement from them.
Officials have justified the large payouts for no title by pointing out that the County typically uses State grant money to cover their part.
“Tax dollars is still tax dollars,” Couey observed.
“This is too much money to lay on the table to not have a guarantee. You’re basically spending $600,000 of our money, whether it be Federal or state or local, and I never get to do anything with it.
“It helps protect Whiting Field, that’s a good thing. But long term, what’s going to happen with my money? I hope Whiting Field stays there forever, but if it doesn’t, we have a lot of multiple pieces of property that we’ve bought easements on and the taxpayer’s on the short end of the stick.”
The County, Thursday, also purchased a $200,000 easement on an 80 acre parcel that was last purchased for money in 1996.
Correction: Article modified to reflect that Santa Rosa typically uses State grant money to cover their 25% portion of easement purchases. The article originally posted that the County uses Federal grant money to cover their part.