AUSTIN (KXAN) — The state of Texas is taking steps to save a popular state park from closure and development into a private community, but time is running out before the land is sold to the developer.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously Thursday 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,” according to a release from the department.
The park, about 70 miles east of Waco, closed to the public at the end of February after almost 50 years in operation. It has since temporarily reopened but is slated for permanent closure on June 13.
“This action reinforces the continued commitment and support of state leadership, TPW Commission and TPWD to saving the park while adding new park land for all Texans now and in the future,” the release said.
The saga of Fairfield Lake State Park
The parkland had been leased to the state by Vistra Energy, which formerly operated a power plant by the lake. Vistra is in contract to sell the land to Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, which plans to turn the site into an exclusive gated community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course.
It’s unclear how much Todd Interests is buying the land for, due to confidentiality provisions in the contract, but the land is publicly listed online for more than $110 million.
Thursday’s action is the latest development in a years-long attempt to keep the park open. When Vistra’s coal plant closed in 2018, the company gave the Parks and Wildlife Department a two-year notice that it intended to terminate its lease in October 2020. The lease was extended further until fall 2022, contingent upon the sale of the land.
“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. The company entered into a contract with Todd Interests in April 2022. At that time, Vistra ceased negotiations with the state.
“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 Interests CEO Shawn Todd told lawmakers in a May 1 hearing.
It’s unclear how Thursday’s vote would affect that contract, if at all. KXAN has reached out to both Vistra Energy and Todd Interests for comment and will update this story when we receive a response.
The Parks and Wildlife Commission is also considering a special meeting early next month to explore additional legal options to keep the park open.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have gotten involved. A bill was filed in March to acquire the land through eminent domain. That bill was significantly altered and would now simply require any changes to water permits at the lake first be approved by Parks and Wildlife.
TPWD Chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin previously told lawmakers that the developer wants to change the water permit from industrial to consumptive, residential and recreational, and send thousands of acre-feet to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
Some lawmakers expressed concern that if passed, the bill could infringe on the developer’s property rights and open up the state to potential litigation.
The bill passed the House but was left pending in a Senate committee.
More than 5,700 visitors have entered the park since it reopened in March, according to TPWD. Last fiscal year, the park welcomed more than 82,000 visitors.