AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted Thursday to limit its future use of eminent domain.
The Parks and Wildlife Department is currently using the process to try to acquire a 5,000-acre property that includes the now-former Fairfield Lake State Park.
The policy adopted Thursday says eminent domain authority will be limited to “exceptional and unusual circumstances.” Commissioners defined those circumstances as “when property was previously dedicated to public use as a park and the property owner rejects an offer(s) to voluntarily convey the property.”
When deciding whether to use eminent domain moving forward, the Commission said it would consider factors including public investment already on the property, the level of public support for the acquisition, the natural and cultural resources on the property and the number of visitors to the property.
“Given its significant potential impact on private landowners, our commissioners chose to limit TPWD’s use of eminent domain to ensure it will be used exceedingly sparingly and only under specified circumstances,” Commission Chairman Arch ‘Beaver’ Aplin said in a press release. “The policy is clear – TPWD will not use eminent domain to condemn residences, farms or ranches.”
Based on the language of the policy, commissioners would still be able to use eminent domain in the case of Fairfield Lake State Park, as it would fall under the “exceptional and unusual circumstances” definition.
Todd Interests, the developer who purchased the property, has repeatedly called out TPWD for its use of eminent domain in this case.
“Todd Interests is very concerned about government officials abusing their power and agencies running amok, trying to cover up their own inept behavior over five years,” Blake Beckham, an attorney representing the development company, said in a press conference Tuesday.
What happens next for Fairfield Lake?
As part of the process, TPWD gave Todd Interests a final offer to purchase the Fairfield Lake property. That offer was rejected Aug. 15. At the time, Shawn Todd, CEO of Todd Interests, said the offer was “hundreds of millions below fair market value” and below what he initially paid for the property.”
The next step would be for TPWD to file a petition for condemnation of the property. As of Aug. 22, the department told KXAN it had “not yet” done that and remains “hopeful” that Todd will agree to a voluntary sale prior to TPWD initiating court proceedings.
“However, TPWD is following all legally required steps to initiate condemnation,” the department said.
Todd has repeatedly said he is not a “willing seller” and that construction will continue on site.
Plans for the site, called the ‘Freestone’ community, include 400 lakefront homes and “amenities a family should expect from a world-class resort,” including a clubhouse, restaurant, resort pool and a “championship-level” golf course.
If a petition for condemnation is filed, three special commissioners, appointed by a district court judge, would hear evidence and determine the current fair market value of the property. TPWD would then pay the amount and take possession of the property.
If either party objects to the special commissioners’ findings, the case would move to a civil trial.
Aplin replaced as TPWC Chairman
The developments come as Aplin is on his way out as chairman of the Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday the appointment of Jeff Hildebrand as chairman, effective Aug. 31. Aplin’s term expired in February, according to a bio on the commission’s website.
“Arch ‘Beaver’ Aplin provided steadfast leadership as Chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission for the past two years,” Abbott said in a press release. “I thank him for faithfully serving his fellow Texans to preserve the beautiful Texas landscape that spurs our booming tourism industry and protects our state’s rich history.”
Hildebrand has served as a commissioner since 2019. William ‘Leslie’ Doggett has been appointed to fill the open commissioner spot when Hildebrand becomes chair.