State drops eminent domain case to reclaim Fairfield Lake State Park

A developer plans to build a luxury subdivision on the property.

By Michael MarksDecember 7, 2023 12:47 pm,

The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife has dropped its eminent domain pursuit of Fairfield Lake State Park, the agency announced on Tuesday.

The future of the 5,000-acre property in Freestone County has been in limbo ever since a Dallas developer purchased the land in June. The state didn’t actually own the parkland, but leased it from a power company called Vistra Corp. The developer, Todd Interests, plans to build a luxury subdivision on the property.

After Vistra sold to Todd Interests, the state tried to re-claim control of the land through eminent domain. Abandoning that effort means it will remain in private hands.

Lana Ferguson, breaking news reporter for the Dallas Morning News, spoke to Texas Standard about how we got here, and what happens next. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Why the decision from the state not to pursue eminent domain anymore?

Lana Ferguson: Yeah, it’s interesting. The timing makes sense.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had a looming deadline of Dec. 11 to appeal a fair market value that was recently set on the land at $418 million. So they had to make a decision if they were going to appeal. And I think they looked at the time, money and energy they’ve put into this and maybe thought that those efforts would be more fruitful somewhere else.

So originally Todd Interests purchased this property for, as I understand it, just over $100 million. And special committee evaluated that market value, as you said, it was worth more than $400 million. I suppose a lot of folks wonder what factors went into that sort of valuation – four fold over what Todd Interests paid for it.

So there was that special hearing in Freestone County with a few judge-appointed – they were residents, actually, of the county – and they heard two days worth of testimony from witnesses and experts, including a former park superintendent who lived on the land, an appraiser, water rights experts… Some big names like Todd Interest CEO Shawn Todd and Buc-ee’s CEO Arch “Beaver” Aplin, who was the former commission chairman.

And based off those hearings, the special commissioners took a lot of things into account, like the price of the land – like you said, $103 million – the potential value of the water in Fairfield Lake… And Todd’s attorneys also argued the value of the land immediately increases when it’s bought with a purpose and plan in mind. There was a little debate on that, but that seemed to play a big part in their decision.

Well, you mentioned that a lot of prominent locals took part in this. What sort of impact has this story had, more broadly speaking, in Freestone County?

It split the community. There is a large group of folks, a strong group of folks, who really supported the state’s efforts to save the park by whatever means necessary and protect that land. They traveled throughout Texas, including Austin, to talk about what this park meant to them. Others were concerned about what impacts that bringing the luxury neighborhood into the area would do for people who have been there for decades.

And on the other side, you have folks who said this is a private property rights issue. “We need to stay out of private deals. The state needs to stay out of private deals.” And they were also just excited about what this development could mean for the area’s tax revenue. So it’s a big split.

How beloved was Fairfield Lake State Park? Was it used that much?

Honestly, it’s a small park compared, from my understanding, to a lot of other parks. But the people that went there for the last 50 years really did love it.

There was a lot of people who really loved fishing in the lake. So that’s been a big point that people have brought up – is “we’re losing that place to go, nearby us, to fish and to go and protect this land.” So I think it was popular among a certain group of people and they’re really sad to lose this.

And so what happens to the property going forward?

Based off a couple of reports I’ve seen in conversations, about 600 homes are going to be built. Looks like only about a fourth to 150 of those homes will have full time residents. But there’s going to be a golf course and a country club and restaurants and shops. It’s a big thing.

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