AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers have asked the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to consider temporarily reopening a state park before its sale to a private developer later this summer.
Fairfield Lake State Park, about 70 miles east of Waco, closed at the end of February after almost 50 years in operation. The site is not owned by the state, but rather leased by Vistra Energy, which operated a coal plant on the lake until 2018.
The company is selling the land to a private developer, Todd Interests, which plans to turn the land into an exclusive community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The Parks and Wildlife Department was given a 120-day termination of lease notice on Feb. 13, meaning the state would have to vacate the property by June 13. TPWD decided to close the park to the public at the end of February to ensure the department had time to close all operations on the property.
In a Thursday meeting of the Texas House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), chair of the committee, asked TPWD to consider reopening the park temporarily, noting there was still “time on the clock” before the lease was officially terminated.
“I trust you guys know how much time you actually need to put the sign up and say the park is officially closed, but it just seems to me that we may have a bit more time for the public and Texans to enjoy this, to the economic benefit of Fairfield and Freestone County,” Ashby said.
TPWD Chairman Arch ‘Beaver’ Aplin called it an “interesting opportunity” heading into spring.
“I think it sends a message that we’re positive. We think we can save this. We haven’t given up. The gates aren’t locked,” Aplin said, suggesting the park could reopen for daytime use only and with waived entrance fees.
The park has seen an increase in visitors in recent years, with more than 80,000 visitors in Fiscal Year 2022.
Concern about cemeteries
Lawmakers also brought up concerns about the preservation of at least three cemeteries on the property, including one that continues to be an active burial site. Some of the gravesites date back to the 1880s, according to TPWD.
“I think that working with the [Parks and Wildlife Department] and the Texas Historical Commission, we need to do a deep dive to determine the exact locations of these cemeteries to preserve our history and the integrity of them,” Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth) said.
Collier also said she has heard from direct descendants of people buried in one of the cemeteries, concerned about access if the park is turned into a gated community, as planned by the developer.
“All those cemeteries are not owned by Vistra,” said Brad Watson, senior director of community affairs for Vistra Energy. “They’re owned by separate entities that have easements in perpetuity, or they own the access to them.”
Watson, although not a representative for Todd Interests, said that means even if the developer turns the land into a private community, the public would still be able to access the cemeteries, citing a statute in the Texas Health and Safety Code.
Section 711.041 of that code ensures the public “shall have the right to reasonable ingress and egress” to cemeteries, even when the site is on private property.
“We’re going to make sure that these family members have access to these cemeteries, no matter the outcome of this transaction,” Ashby said.
Could the state still prevent the sale?
Negotiations between TPWD, Vistra and Todd Interests for the state to purchase the land have “stopped completely,” Aplin said. But lawmakers are still trying to save the park from permanent closure.
Rep. Angelia Orr (R-Itasca) and Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), whose districts include the park, have filed bills in both the Texas House and Senate to allow the state to acquire the land through eminent domain.
House Bill 2332 and Senate Bill 1656 are identical in wording. The bills claim the state and the Parks and Wildlife Department “have invested over $70 million in the development and operation of Fairfield Lake State Park,” and that the state has a “vested interest in preserving and protecting state parks.”
Watson pushed back on that figure in Thursday’s hearing, saying Vistra estimates the value of the infrastructure within the park — roads, utilities, buildings and facilities — to be closer to $7 million in actual cash value, adjusted for inflation and depreciation.
Rep. Ashby noted the dispute between the numbers, but said the committee would “err on the side of listening to our state agency” when looking at the documented value of improvements at the park.
If passed, the bills would give the state “the power of eminent domain to acquire… any property necessary to preserve Fairfield Lake State Park.” Eminent domain in Texas can only be used if the land involved is acquired for a public purpose and the landowner is adequately compensated, according to the State of Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights.
The property in question is more than 5,000 acres, including the 1,460-acre state park and 2,400-acre lake, as well as additional land on the north side of the lake. As a whole, the property is listed for more than $110 million.
Ashby said Todd Interests declined an invitation at speak at Thursday’s meeting. In a previous hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, a representative for the developer said it “would be a shame” if the state moved forward with eminent domain.
But members of the Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee said they were determined to keep the park open.
“We as a committee, we as a body, we want to do all we can in working with the agency to help save this treasure,” Ashby said.
Vistra open to selling a different park
Of the 89 state parks in Texas, 17 are not owned by the state. Fifteen of those are leased by government entities, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The leases that we have are a wonderful opportunity for this agency,” Aplin said, adding that lease agreements allow the state to keep parks open to public access on land that they would otherwise not be able to afford. “We get the benefit of these Corps of Engineers giant properties that we get to lease. It’s part of what we do and how we provide our parks.”
Two parks are on land owned by Vistra Energy — Fairfield Lake State Park and Lake Colorado City State Park. In Thursday’s hearing, Watson told lawmakers Vistra was open to selling the latter to the state.
“Yes, our company would still seek fair market value,” Watson said. “But such a sale would remove all doubt that the land would forever be used by Texans as a state park.”
Ashby said he was “very glad” that Vistra was interested in talking about a sale, adding, “That would be the desire of Texans to see that park owned by the State of Texas.”
Aplin told lawmakers he would make a phone call “within the hour” to begin those conversations.