State abandons effort to take back Fairfield Lake State Park land

ByPooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune
Sunday, December 10, 2023
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The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has effectively thrown in the towel on a monthslong battle to buy or seize a 5,000-acre property that includes the now-closed Fairfield Lake State Park in Freestone County.

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Dallas-based developer Todd Interests purchased the land in June for about $103 million from Vistra Corp., a private power company that for decades had leased the portion containing the park to the state at no cost.

Soon after, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department - which had turned down an opportunity to buy the entire property from Vistra - filed a petition to seize the property, located about 100 miles south of Dallas, through eminent domain.

SEE ALSO: Texas takes legal action to save Fairfield Lake State Park

A Freestone County judge then appointed a panel of local landowners to set a fair market value for the property as part of the eminent domain process. The state could have taken immediate possession of the property if it agreed to pay that amount, but it balked at the panel's price - $418.3 million, about four times more than what Todd Interests paid for the land a few months ago.

The state, which had argued that the value of the property was $85 million, could have appealed that decision and triggered a civil trial but instead decided to cease efforts to take the property. The Parks and Wildlife Department also said it doesn't intend to make future attempts to seize any portion of the property, including water rights.

"TPWD recognizes the importance of conserving our state's natural resources and providing recreational opportunities for Texans," TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz said in a statement. "However, TPWD must also responsibly manage the state's fiscal resources in order to maximize the benefit of our parks for all Texans."

Todd Interests plans to turn the former park into a high-end gated subdivision with multimillion-dollar homes, a golf course, and restaurants. The company has already begun construction.

The developer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement to the Dallas Morning News, CEO Shawn Todd said the state's decision was a win for Texas property rights.

"This monumental and historic victory belongs to the ranchers, farmers, landowners, and people of Freestone County," Todd said. "It is a tribute to the undaunting courage of the elected Freestone County officials, who stood with unwavering resolve against former appointed TPWD leadership that enacted policy that was against not only the state legislature, but the inherent rights of all Texas property owners."

The park opened in 1976 on land owned by Vistra, which in 2018 closed the coal-fired power plant it operated across the lake from the park and notified the state that it planned to sell the property and end the state's lease. The company encouraged the state to bid for the property, but the state - which only wanted to buy the 1,820 acres that included the park - decided not to when Vistra said it didn't want to split up the property.

Todd Interests later declined the state's offers to buy the park property for $103 million.

Texas residents who have been advocating to save the park said they were disappointed in the state's decision. Administrators of the Save Fairfield Lake State Park Facebook group were pushing the state to appeal the local panel's decision on the property's value.

"Even though this is concluded, I want people to continue pushing our public officials to conserve public land," said Misti Little, administrator of the Facebook group. "We are only going to lose more land as cities expand outward, so we need to keep the momentum moving forward."

Texas lawmakers this year passed legislation to provide $1 billion for acquiring land and creating new state parks, saying the money could create dozens of new state parks and alleviate long lines and waitlists at existing parks. In the November election, voters approved that fund through a constitutional amendment.

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