From Texas Public Radio:
On a windy, stormy, truly unappealing winter day in late December, there isn’t a boat in sight on Fairfield Lake, about 90 minutes east of Waco.
On a camping ground further away from the water, Franklin Blanks is trying to stay warm.
“Trying to stay dry,” he said. “It rained last night, but other than that, yeah, everything’s nice.”
His wife, Sai Blanks, said they love to travel from park to park. They even made it out this weekend, despite the terrible weather. The retired couple is passionate about public lands.
“We stay at state parks,” she said. “We love state parks.”
“It’s important to have the kids grow up to be going outside instead of just staying inside all the time, playing video games,” Franklin Blanks added. “Get them outside and riding the bikes and walking the trails.”
Fairfield Lake State Park has all that and more: “Lots of fishing, picnicking, hiking, biking and camping overnight,” according to Rodney Franklin, the director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
But all those activities may soon be closed to the public.
The agency currently leases the property free of payments from Luminant, an energy company that closed a coal power plant in early 2018. The dam-created lake was used to cool the power plant.
The property is for sale with a price tag just over $100 million. Franklin said that’s a bit of a stretch for the Parks and Wildlife budget.
“Well, certainly that is a very steep price tag, and we try to make the most of the available dollars that we have,” he said. “Our goal has been and continues to be, hopefully, to find a willing partner and a suitable partner like Luminant has been and to work with the whoever the new owners end up being to enter into a similar agreement that we have, so we can continue to provide Fairfield Lake State Park as a resource for people to come and enjoy the outdoors.”
But that’s not a guarantee, according to Cash McWhorter of Hortenstine Ranch Company, the broker tapped by Luminant to sell the lake property.
“It could be a private hunting club,” he said, ticking down a list of possible developments: a resort, or a business that — like Luminant — needs the water for its operations, or a private lake house development.
“The scale of that can certainly change up or down,” he said. “This size and magnitude is very rare… and the magnitude of the lake is also something that’s attracted buyers to it — the ability to possibly develop it.”
McWhorter said he hopes the new owner keeps the lease with Texas Parks and Wildlife.
“That’s something we’re encouraging,” he said. “Now, we understand that the next owner may not be able to make that work… if it becomes a development, then hey, you can go buy a lake house out there, and you can still enjoy it or something of that nature. But we’re not going to be able to control that moving forward once the property sells.”
Back at the park camping grounds, Franklin Banks prepared to grill some lunch meats. He wished the state would intervene and buy the property.
“Yeah, kind of sad to see ‘em talking about selling the park. It’s kind of sad,” he said. “It seems like the State of Texas could come in and buy it, maybe. Would be nice… The State of Texas needs to spend more money on their state parks though — for public access. Kids get out and enjoy the outdoors, you know?”
TPWD currently makes no payments on the property lease, according to a spokesperson. The $110 million price tag for this property is about a quarter of the entire annual budget for the department.