Texas parks department votes to take over Fairfield Lake State Park

A Dallas developer recently purchased the parkland and plans to turn it into a luxury gated community. Saturday’s vote would instead direct the state to take over the park by eminent domain.

By Bekah Morr, KERA NewsJune 12, 2023 9:47 am, ,

From KERA News:

Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners voted unanimously Saturday to condemn Fairfield Lake State Park and pursue eminent domain to take over the 5,000-acre plot of land southeast of Dallas, so it can remain open for public use.

The private property, which was previously leased by the state, was recently sold to a Dallas developer for $110 million. The sale kicked off a campaign by park lovers and state lawmakers to save the property.

Developer Todd Interests planned to turn the land into an exclusive gated community with pricey homes and a private golf course.

During the course of Saturday’s meeting, commissioners and members of the public expressed their concern with using eminent domain, but said saving the park was an extraordinary circumstance that required action.

“While you may hear that one family’s business interests may be important, I would submit to you that the interests of thousands of everyday working class Texans are just as important,” said state Rep. Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, who represents the district in which the park is located. “If condemnation isn’t used in this circumstance, and if now is not the time, then when?”

The commissioners also unanimously passed a measure that would instruct the department’s executive director to set a policy restricting TPWD’s use of eminent domain.

Ahead of the vote, commission Chair Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said it was important to reassure Texas landowners the department would only use eminent domain in “extraordinary and unusual circumstances,” like in the case of Fairfield Lake.

“This commission has zero interest in condemning farms, ranches, working lands — and the department will continue to acquire property for our parks and management areas through voluntary transactions as we have for decades,” Aplin said. “We do not take this decision lightly today, and certainly understand the concerns we’ve heard so far. But I view this situation with Fairfield as a one-time event.”

A spokesperson for Todd Interests declined to comment Saturday.

The state must now make a formal written offer to the developer to purchase the land at a fair price, according to the department’s general counsel. If there is no voluntary agreement, a petition would be filed in Freestone County District Court where a judge would appoint three disinterested property owners in the county as special commissioners.

Those commissioners would determine the fair market value of the property, which the state would then pay to the court registry. Once paid, the state would immediately take possession of the parkland. However, either party can appeal — which could lead to an even lengthier legal battle.

In an interview earlier this year, Austin attorney Luke Ellis said the state has the legal right to take land from a private property owner through eminent domain if the land is for public use and they pay “just compensation” to the owner.

“The bigger question that I think will exist in this case is, what is the correct amount of just compensation owed to the property owner that results from the taking?” he said. “I suspect that could be an issue that could be hotly disputed.”

The state operated Fairfield Lake State Park on leased land, free of charge, for roughly 50 years until the sale with Todd Interests was finalized June 1.

But in a letter sent to TPWD on June 6, Shawn, Patrick and Philip Todd with Todd Interests said the state failed to express any legitimate interest in buying the land.

TPWD officials dispute those claims. In an emailed statement, an agency spokesperson said it originally offered to buy only the park portion of the property from previous owner Vistra Energy when the company announced its intent to sell, but Vistra said they didn’t want to sell the land in parcels.

The agency said it also made a $25 million offer on a contract assignment for the property, which the developer rejected two weeks ago.

After the meeting, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger praised the commission’s decision.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s gotten to this point,” said Metzger, who also spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. “But the department has worked tirelessly to try and reach a deal with the owner, Todd Interests, including a very generous offer to allow them to walk away with a $25 million profit and the gratitude of millions of Texans.”

In its letter last week, the Dallas developer criticized the state’s approach to taking the land using eminent domain, saying they had the opportunity to buy it outright and failed.

“Is this how you fulfill Governor Abbott’s promise that ‘Texas is wide open for business?’” the letter said. “As a family-owned, Texas-based business and longtime supporters of our state’s pro-business policies, we sincerely hope not.”

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