Impasse over the Navarre Pass

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Sen. Bill Nelson and the Santa Rosa County Commission appear to have reached an impasse over Navarre Pass.

Commissioners say they would never vote to build a Navarre Pass without the full support of the U.S. military, but they’d like to have the option to consider constructing one if Eglin Air Force Base ever decided to go along with the idea.

Nelson, however, has taken a stand against the pass and has used the issue to block passage of a federal bill that would allow private ownership of land on Navarre Beach.

Presently, homeowners pay lease fees. Florida’s senior senator, a Democrat, is standing in the way of a proposal to allow Navarre Beach residents to own their property.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, has introduced legislation to allow Santa Rosa County to take ownership of Navarre Beach from Escambia County. For a time, Nelson supported the legislation as well.

But Nelson has stepped back from the bill, which he cosponsored, because he said more needs to be done to ensure no pass is built.

“The Air Force has made it clear that digging of Navarre Pass would threaten the U.S. military mission and harm national security — and I’m not going to let that happen. I’m not going to let Eglin’s military testing and training mission be impaired,” Nelson said in a statement issued Thursday.

The fee simple legislation doesn’t go far enough to prevent the counties from reopening the pass, Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown said Monday in an email.

“Before Congress acts on any legislation, he wants the counties to approve resolutions that make clear they would oppose any attempt to reopen the pass,” Brown said in an email.

The senator’s pronouncements on the issue followed a public hearing, also Thursday, at which Santa Rosa County commissioners resolved never to even consider building a pass connecting Santa Rosa Sound and the Gulf of Mexico without military support for the project.

“Unless the military comes forward and says it won’t have an impact, I will vote no to the pass,” said Commissioner Don Salter.

Commissioners did grumble some about Nelson’s stance, with Cole saying the senator and his staff have failed to even speak to him regarding the Navarre Pass/fee simple issue.

The Board of Commissioners declined to take action on a resolution until they get more information from Nelson’s office.

Commissioner Rob Williamson went so far as to say that if Nelson was not using his status on the Armed Services Committee to apply pressure, he believed Eglin might change its stance on the idea of a Navarre Pass.

“I would be very interested to hear what the military would say if we had a Gov. Scott sitting on that committee,” Williamson said, alluding to Scott’s likely run next year to replace Nelson.

Not that the Air Force has ever wavered on the issue. In October, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force issued a statement firmly underlining its stance.

“Reopening Navarre Pass would interfere with current and future Air Force and DOD missions,” Gen. David Goldfein, wrote in a letter to Nelson. “The Air Force opposes reopening that pass.”

Air Force officials have said traffic moving in and out of a pass in the Navarre area would restrict testing and training in the area.

For a few months back in 1965, the Navarre Pass was located about 150 yards from where the Navarre Beach Park is now. It was said to have been about 150 feet wide and 18-20 feet deep.

Hurricane Betsy has been blamed with closing the pass two months after it was completed.

Santa Rosa’s commissioners envision a new Navarre Pass in a different location. Those who favor a new pass say it could mean a boon for the county economically and, it is theorized, might even improve the environmental health of the waters around the pass.

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