Commissioners in Freestone County don’t want the state to seize the Fairfield Lake State Park property using eminent domain, writing in a letter to Texas Parks and Wildlife that the plan is an abuse of power and government overreach.
The Parks Department voted earlier this month to pursue eminent domain to stop the nearly 2,000-acre park from being developed into a gated community.
Emily Brindley, an investigative reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said the question of the park’s ownership came to public attention in January.
“There is a private energy company called Vistra that owns this property, Fairfield Lake State Park,” Brindley said. “The state has leased that land from Vistra for the past almost 50 years. But Vistra has decided to sell that property; they used to operate a power plant that they no longer operate on that property. And the state did not purchase the property when Vistra first put it up for sale, so Vistra instead sold it to Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer.”
Brindley said there has been a mix of reactions in the community to the state’s intended use of eminent domain to take over the park land.
“There certainly have been people who are excited to see that the state is using eminent domain. I won’t say that we have heard very many people who are supportive of eminent domain generally, but there have been a number of people who think that it’s the right move in this case because they care so much about keeping the state park in public hands,” she said. “There have also been others who have said that using eminent domain is a step too far. The developer himself, of course, opposes the use of eminent domain and has said that he thinks that this could set a dangerous precedent.”
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Despite the controversy, experts say using eminent domain to establish park land is legally acceptable.
“I’ve talked with several eminent domain experts, lawyers who specialize in this area, and they have said that the use of eminent domain to take property to use as a park is literally textbook,” Brindley said. “Many people, when they think of eminent domain, they think more of highways or pipelines. And that certainly is a use of eminent domain, perhaps the most common use of eminent domain. But really, the test for whether eminent domain can be used is that the property has to be used for a public purpose, and a park is a pretty clear-cut public purpose.”
The state has made an offer to the developer to acquire the property voluntarily, which is the first step before eminent domain proceedings can take place.
“So that offer that the state has made to the developer is confidential, so we don’t know what it is. And the developer also can kind of go back and forth with the state and negotiate on the terms of that offer,” Brindley said. “It is possible, if the developer accepts that offer voluntarily, that the property is never actually condemned. The developer has of course indicated publicly that he has every intent to move forward with his development.”
Brindley said that, according to lawyers, the developer might have a hard time pushing back against eminent domain usage generally. However, the developer would probably have reason to argue with the state about the price of the property.
“That could go into a court case,” she said. “So we could see that stretch on for a while, although the state would be able to kind of take ownership of the property during part of those proceedings.”