AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new bill has been filed in the Texas Senate aiming to prevent the development of a state park into a multi-million dollar private community.
Senate Bill 1656, filed by Sen. Charles Schwertner on Monday, would allow the state of Texas to acquire the land through eminent domain, in a bid to keep Fairfield Lake State Park publicly accessible.
The language of the bill is an exact copy of a House Bill filed last month by Rep. Angelia Orr.
The park, about 70 miles east of Waco, closed to the public at the end of February after almost 50 years of operation. The park welcomed more than 80,000 visitors in Fiscal Year 2022.
KXAN previously reported the current landowner, Vistra Energy, has leased land for the park to the state at no cost since the 1970s. Vistra is selling the land to Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer.
Todd Interests plans to turn the property into an exclusive community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The bills filed by Rep. Orr and Sen. Schwertner, whose districts include the park, say 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.”
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.
“If the state at some point moves toward eminent domain, we think that would be a shame if it got to that,” Blake Beckham, a representative for Todd Interests, said in a recent hearing of the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee. “We would at that time calculate the economic value of the entire project as completed.”
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.
In the subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27, lawmakers heard how negotiations between the Parks and Wildlife Department, Todd Interests and Vistra Energy broke down.
When a coal plant operated by Vistra on Fairfield Lake closed in 2018, the company gave TPWD notice that it planned to sell the land.
“Vistra encouraged the TPWD to submit a bid on the property, but they did not,” Meranda Cohn, a spokesperson for Vistra, told KXAN in a statement. The company then entered into a contract with Todd Interests in April 2022. At that time, Vistra ceased negotiations with the state.
“Vistra is in an existing contract with a buyer, and we are not legally permitted to negotiate with any other potential buyer, including the state of Texas,” said Brad Watson, Vistra’s senior director of community affairs.
Lawmakers heard how TPWD Chairman Arch ‘Beaver’ Aplin tried to buy Todd Interests out of its contract, offering 6% of the value of the land, about $6.6 million.
When that offer was rejected, Aplin said he appealed to Shawn Todd’s — founder of Todd Interests — altruistic side. “I asked him to take a philanthropic, altruistic approach,” Aplin said. “Let us pay back his expenses and help me save this state park.”
“We were told to walk away,” Beckham said. “Maybe we’ll cover your expenses and name a campsite after you, but no money at all for the loss of our opportunity.”
“That’s not how the government is supposed to operate in Texas,” Beckham said, calling the state’s offer “not palatable and not constitutional.”
If the state does move forward with eminent domain, Beckham said the process could take years.
Vistra currently also leases land to the state at Martin Creek Lake State Park, in Rusk County, and at Lake Colorado City State Park, in Mitchell County. It also leases more than 1,000 acres for public hunting in Robertson County.