Fairfield Lake State Park’s future is unclear after property valued at more than $400 million

The state used eminent domain to reclaim the property from a private developer.

By Michael MarksNovember 17, 2023 11:27 am,

Earlier this year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lost control of Fairfield Lake State Park, a park about 70 miles east of Waco that was a popular spot for hiking and fishing. 

The department leased the property from Vistra Corp., an energy company, and its predecessors for more than 50 years. But after failing to renew the lease, Vistra sold the land to Todd Interests, a Dallas real estate developer. The company’s vision includes multimillion-dollar homes, a golf course and other amenities on the property. 

But the parks department threw a wrench into that plan on Sept. 1, when its board decided to condemn the park through eminent domain. This week, a special panel in Freestone County, where the park is located, heard testimony and decided how much the land is worth: $418.3 million.

Mary McDonald, a freelance reporter who covered the hearing for the Freestone County Times, spoke to the Texas Standard about the impact of the valuation.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How does the $418.3 million valuation compare with what Todd Interests paid for the property?

Mary McDonald: Todd Interests paid a little bit over $100 million – I think $103 [million].

Wow. How do you go about arriving at that particular price? 

The price came down to the water, the value of the water. They used a formula about using a nearby lake to be built, saying that it was valued at $500 million. So Fairfield Lake would be $336 million.

Had they already started building some of those huge mansions there, or no? 

Not clear about that. One of the witnesses, I believe, said that they had sold some properties to build on.

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What are you hearing from members of the community and from folks who have used these these parklands over the years?

It is a very divided situation. Early on, the Freestone County commissioners invited the Parks and Wildlife people in; there were citizens who were allowed to make comments. And that was about a 40/60 split, give or take, in favor of not doing eminent domain.

Interesting. So what happens next? What’s the next shoe to drop here? 

Well, it’s up to the state now, what they want to do. They can purchase the land from Todd Interests and take immediate control of it, or they can take it back to court with a jury trial hoping to get the amount reduced, or they can drop the eminent domain altogether.

What actually went on in this meeting – could you describe it? 

Well, you had attorneys for the state and you had Todd Interests’ attorneys. You also had attorneys representing the investors. Each were allowed to bring in witnesses and ask questions and cross-examine them.

I think the commissioners did an excellent job. They listened intently. They asked questions. They took notes. So I was very impressed with their professionalism.

Were there any people who use the parks that weighed in on the value of the parks to them at all? Or was that even a consideration in a hearing like this?

No, the only thing close to that is a couple of the former park rangers spoke about what the park had looked like and how this had been done.

Will it take a lot to get the park back to where it was, should the Parks and Wildlife Department decide to purchase the land? 

It’s my understanding that most of the infrastructure for the park has been done away with: things like the RV park spaces, the landings. All of the buildings that had belonged in the park are now gone, as I understand it.

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