AUSTIN (KXAN) — The state of Texas may try to use eminent domain to prevent a developer from turning a state park into a private community.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will hold a special meeting June 10 to consider acquiring the land through condemnation, the process by which governments can use eminent domain.
The developer, Dallas-based Todd Interests, plans to turn the property into a gated community with multi-million dollar homes and a golf course. The company will officially take over the land, which includes Fairfield Lake State Park, from the current owner on June 13.
Lawmakers previously considered allowing the state to use eminent domain to acquire the property. A bill filed in the legislature was significantly altered to focus on water rights in the lake rather than using eminent domain. House Bill 4757 was passed by the House, but left pending in a Senate committee after some senators warned it could open the state up to possible litigation.
The meeting announcement comes about a week after the Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to authorize the 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.”
How did we get here?
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 TPWD notice that it would terminate its lease.
“Vistra encouraged the TPWD to submit a bid on the property, but they did not,” Meranda Cohn, a spokesperson for Vistra, previously told KXAN in a statement.
In committee hearings this legislative session, TPWD Chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin told lawmakers his department only wanted to purchase the state park itself, not the full 5,000-acre property that Vistra wanted to sell as a whole. Vistra then entered into a contract with Todd Interests in April 2022.
Shawn Todd, CEO of Todd Interests, said the state had “multiple opportunities” to purchase the land.
“As a taxpayer, I’m frankly disgusted that Parks and Wildlife could not figure out over multiple years how to purchase a piece of property, Todd told lawmakers in a May 1 hearing.
In a press release Friday, Aplin said TPWD 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,” TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz said.
Blake Beckham, an attorney representing Todd Interests, said at a previous hearing that it would be a “shame” if the state moved toward using eminent domain to acquire the property, but that if it got to that point, the company would calculate the economic value of the entire project as completed.
Texas law states eminent domain can only be used if the land involved is acquired for a public purpose and the landowner is adequately compensated. While Todd Interests and Vistra have not disclosed the sale price, citing confidentiality provisions in their contract, the property was listed online for more than $110 million.
KXAN has reached out to both Vistra and Todd Interests about the newly-scheduled meeting. We will update this story when we hear back.
Concerns about Fairfield Lake
“It is with firm resolve that we move forward to protect Fairfield Lake from potential devastation,” Aplin said in Friday’s press release.
He previously testified to lawmakers that Todd Interests planned to move 14,000 acre-feet of water from the lake to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex for consumption each year.
“The lake will not be the lake as we know it when you stick a straw in it and take a third of the water out of the lake. It just won’t,” Aplin said in a March 9 committee hearing in the Texas House.
TPWD claims that hydrological modeling shows diverting that amount of water would trim 11 miles off the shoreline, damaging aquatic life in the lake.
Todd Interests pushed back on those claims in a Senate hearing on May 1, saying his company was the “largest preservation firm” in Texas. “We care about the environment… the species, the flora, the fauna,” Todd said. “That’s why we’re doing a very low-density development. We’re conservationists and we’re preservationists, but we’re also entrepreneurs.”