By: Paul Lombardo
To fully understand the symbiotic relationship between the Navarre Pass and Santa Rosa Island, one must first familiarize oneself with the history of Santa Rosa Island. The documentary written by Jane Johnson is as detailed as I can find. It accounts the history of the island from its “discovery” by Diego Malando, a captain under the command of Hernando De Soto in the winter of 1539. Over the course of ten pages, you will be better informed than the majority of our county leaders in regards to the narrow strip of the barrier island we know as Santa Rosa Island. With that information and the following narrative, you will better grasp some of the complexities surrounding the issue.
In 1959 Santa Rosa County’s leaders envisioned a course to secure the county’s economic potential that included the construction of Navarre Pass. In 1960, a study by the University of Florida found it feasible to construct the pass, and in 1964 the county decided to open it. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FLDEP) signed the permits shortly thereafter, and in 1965 a pass was opened, and boaters, fishermen, and others began to enjoy the influx of the gulf’s emerald-blue waters. The pass was navigable, but construction of the protective jetties had not yet been completed when two months after opening, the tidal claws of Hurricane Betsy ravished the coastline from New Orleans to Panama City. Before the storm was over the tidal sands had washed into the pass and reduced it to a shallow canal impassible by much more than a canoe. The county had to re-apply for additional permitting to re-dredge the pass, but they were a day late in submitting all the paperwork to the state. In 1968 a request from the county to the state to re-open the pass was denied.
The idea of a Pass lost steam over the next couple of years, but in 1970 a study by the University of Florida concludes that “with proper construction and maintenance of the inlet, no significant environmental effects to the stability of Santa Rosa Island or to the beaches are expected”. In 1976, the board of commissioners approved reconstruction plans, and the citizens overwhelmingly voted to re-open the pass. In 1977, the FLDEP gave notice of their intentions to deny the new permit application (thanks to Murial Wagner of Escambia County, but that’s another story).
Many attempts to rekindle the flame were made by the pass committee over the next two decades but were unsuccessful for one reason or another. In 1991, a law was passed that outlined a change in county line which would affect the area known as Navarre Beach. Previous to 1991, Navarre Beach was actually in Escambia County. This transfer of property from Escambia to Santa Rosa is outlined in FL Law 91-310. One stipulation in the law states that any navigable pass constructed on the island must be approved by both the Escambia and the Santa Rosa County commissioners.
Escambia County passed all fiscal responsibility onto Santa Rosa for the Navarre Beach area. Schoolchildren would begin attending Santa Rosa County schools, all emergency services would be provided by Santa Rosa County, the DOT and beach re-nourishment expenses would be shouldered by Santa Rosa as well. All this, and still Santa Rosa needs to ask permission from the Escambia county commissioners to build a pass. What a sweet deal. As you can imagine, there’s a conflict of interest with that arrangement. This law would serve to become the single most difficult obstacle in the path of re-opening the Navarre Pass.
In 2001, dedicated members of the pass committee carried the torch to the commissioners once again and offered a resolution to re-open the pass. Don Salter moved approval of Resolution No. 2001-03 and said “the pass is another example of how we can enhance the beach to make it more attractive for tourism, quality of life, and make the beach pay for itself” Lee seconded the motion, and the resolution carried by unanimous vote. The next step was to conduct a new feasibility study. The Commission applied for funding from the state to pay for the study, and $50K was allocated to the effort. A misunderstanding in the routing of the funds meant that the $50K for Navarre Beach in Santa Rosa County was actually sent to Santa Rosa Beach (S. Walton Co.). Once the error had been identified, it was too late to correct it. This was a huge blow for the county and the committee. Since then, efforts to re-open the pass have been squelched by certain local officials. Commissioners who supported the pass during their election time now openly answer questions such as: “can we expect to see a pass anytime in the future?” with answers such as; “not in your lifetime”. Questions about funding, environment, and maintenance have our county leaders seemingly bewildered as if they can’t imagine a reasonable path to success on this issue. Or won’t. Passion is the mother of opportunity, but it seems as if our local leaders have lost the passion that those before them had, to see our county prosper. It will take all of us to speak out with one unified voice on this issue and let the leaders know it’s the citizens who they serve and not vise versa. For further information on the history or any subject contained within this narrative, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.