AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just days after a meeting was scheduled to consider acquiring a state park through eminent domain, the developers purchasing the property have expressed their “astonishment” that the state would consider that option.
Fairfield Lake State Park permanently closed to the public on Sunday. The park, about 70 miles east of Waco, has been leased to the state for decades by Vistra Energy, which formerly operated a power plant on Fairfield Lake. After the plant closed in 2018, the company gave the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department notice that it would terminate its lease.
Vistra says it encouraged TPWD to put in a bid to purchase the property, but it did not. The company then entered into a contract with developer Todd Interests in April 2022.
The developer plans to turn the property into a gated community with about 400 multi-million dollar homes and several amenities, including a golf course. TPWD’s lease expires on June 13, but in a last-ditch effort to save the park, the Parks and Wildlife Commission will meet June 10 to consider acquiring the land through condemnation, the process by which governments can use eminent domain.
In a letter to commissioners Tuesday, partners at Todd Interests said they “cannot begin to express our astonishment that officials appointed by Gov. Abbott and approved by Lt. Gov. Patrick and the Texas Senate are considering the condemnation of private property that TPWD had numerous opportunities to acquire.”
Saturday’s special meeting comes after the commission voted to authorize David Yoskowitz, executive director of the Parks and Wildlife Department, to “take all necessary steps to purchase approximately 5,000 acres in Freestone County including Fairfield Lake State Park.”
In a press release announcing the meeting, TPWD said the department had tried to buy Todd Interests out of its contract with Vistra, offering a $20 million assignment fee and up to $5 million in expenses reimbursements.
“Unfortunately, Todd Interests would not work with us, and we now need to pursue other options,” Yoskowitz said.
In an interview with KXAN Friday, Shawn Todd, CEO of Todd Interests, said his company did send back a counter-offer, but TPWD did not accept it.
In Tuesday’s letter, the developers said they were “surprised” to learn of the hearing to consider eminent domain based on the precedent it would set.
“TPWD declined an opportunity to purchase the property. Twice,” the letter states. “It then tried to interfere with the contractual rights of private parties through threats, intimidation and misstatements of facts, trying to purchase the property for less than we were paying. But now it seems to imply it will willingly spend many times that amount to acquire the property through condemnation.”
Todd said he expects commissioners “to put on a theatrical performance tomorrow to move forward with eminent domain.”
If that happens, the state would have to offer Todd Interests fair market value for the land. The developers have not disclosed how much it paid for the property, citing confidentiality provisions in its contract with Vistra, but the property had been listed for more than $110 million online.
Todd told KXAN the property is likely worth much more than that, saying his bank recently appraised the value of the water rights alone at $238 million. He cautioned commissioners against using eminent domain to take over private property.
“I can’t imagine that that’ve been fully briefed on everything that has gone on,” Todd said. “If they have, the state of Texas — who says they are different from California, who says they are conservative, who says they are different from New York — oh my, what hypocrisy.”
State lawmakers did consider using eminent domain to take over the property this legislative session. Identical bills were filed in the House and Senate but neither passed. A replacement bill, HB 4757, refocused efforts on water rights at the lake. The bill passed the House but was left pending in a Senate committee after some senators warned it could open the state up to litigation.
“Most striking is the activist message [commissioners] would sent to the entire nation on behalf of the state of Texas,” the letter from Todd Interests states. “A state once considered the vanguard of private property rights would now take from its citizens and diminish the rights of sellers, buyers and private property owners of every order.”
The developers also claim they received a letter from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office on May 25, directing them to preserve evidence, “as if we had been involved in a crime.” Unrelated articles of impeachment were filed against Paxton that same day.
“We assume this was purely an effort of intimidation as it contains nothing of legal substance — simply theatrics for the media in an effort to interfere with our lawful contract,” the developers wrote.
Despite Monday’s hearing, Todd Interests said it has “fulfilled [its] contractual obligation” and purchased the property as of June 1.
The company says it has already begun executing its development plan, and construction equipment arrived onsite on Monday.
“We have construction equipment on site now,” Todd told KXAN Friday. “Architects, surveyors, workmen are on property at present, and heavy construction will start when the park leaves.”
The company has already executed millions of dollars in related contracts, according to the letter to commissioners. And even if commissioners decide to use eminent domain, “We’re not stopping construction,” Todd said. “We’re not stopping anything.”