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A Texas park on leased land near Dallas must close after the state’s landlord sold the property to a developer

By Raul Trey Lopez, The Texas Tribune

A Texas park on leased land near Dallas must close after the state’s landlord sold the property to a developer” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Fairfield Lake State Park, 96 miles south of Dallas, is expected to close permanently by the end of the month because its landlord has sold the land.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department received a lease termination notice from the owners, Vistra Corp., which had operated the Big Brown coal power plant at that location until the plant shuttered in 2018. Vistra says it has sold its 5,000-acre property to Dallas-based real estate developer Shawn Todd and his firm, Todd Interests, for $110.5 million.

Todd announced the land will be turned into an exclusive gated community, which includes multimillion-dollar homes and a private golf course.

Fairfield isn’t the only state park on borrowed land. There are 14 other public parks, like Cedar Hill, Lake Whitney and Ray Roberts Lake, that could face a similar fate.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Chair Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said the agency attempted to purchase the state park site, but neither the company nor the buyer would consider selling part or all of the land to the state. The park includes 1,460 acres of land and the 2,400-acre Fairfield Lake.

A renowned fishing spot, the lake attracts anglers who fish for bass, crappie, perch, catfish, tilapia and red drum. The lake is also popular for swimming and kayaking, while the surrounding land offers 15 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horse riding. With close to 250 species of birds recorded — including the bald eagle — the park is a bird-watching heaven.

For more than 50 years, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department leased land for the state park from energy companies, Vistra and Luminant. Since 1976, the state has invested $72 million in renovations and improvements to the park.

“This is an unprecedented loss of a state treasure for Texans,” said David Yoskowitz, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The demand for outdoor recreation exceeds supply in Texas, so losing even one state park is a setback for all of us who enjoy publicly accessible lands.”

The park will close permanently Feb. 28, and the state will have 120 days to vacate before turning it over to Todd Interests. During that time, park staff will begin to remove equipment, relocate staff members to other parks and cancel upcoming camping reservations. More than 2,700 people had already reserved spots for dates after Feb. 27, according to a press release.

Aplin said the selling of the parkland was a surprise and will have a huge impact on Fairfield, a town of about 2,800 people.

“They had been a coal-producing plant for some 40 or 50 years,” he said. “So when they decided to shut down, we didn’t see that coming. … [We] had no way of knowing.”

Since 2016, Irving-based corporation Vistra has closed or announced the closure of 19 coal plants as what was once the state’s largest electricity generator pivoted to solar power, investing about $850 million toward seven solar projects in Texas.

“This is one of their big attractors in their community,” Aplin said of the Fairfield area. “People come to the park and shop in the town of Fairfield. We had 83,000 people come to the park last year. It’s a big deal, not only for our agency, but for the community and Freestone County.”

State Rep. Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, whose district includes the park, filed a bill Tuesday that, if passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, would allow the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to use eminent domain to seize the park’s land.

Orr said lawmakers also are working on a bill to prevent more state parks from being closed.

“This treasured piece of Texas has blessed our local families and countless visitors for generations, and losing it is hard to comprehend,” she said. “I join park lovers in Freestone County and across the state in expressing my sincere disappointment in hearing this news. As a result, we are now working on legislation to prevent this from ever occurring in any of our other beautiful state parks going forward.”

Luke Metzger, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said it was especially tragic that the park will close during the 100-year anniversary of the state park system.

“Our state parks are sacred to us as Texans,” Metzger said. “Unfortunately, this loss means fewer nights camped, fewer fish reeled in and fewer memories with our families.

“Texas desperately needs more state parks, not fewer,” he added.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee voiced his displeasure Tuesday.

“Today’s heartbreaking announcement of the closing of Fairfield Lake State Park is a tremendous loss for Freestone County and all Texans who enjoy our state’s unique parklands,” he said. “It is unfortunate that Vistra and this private developer were unable to come to an agreement that would have allowed the state of Texas to purchase the park from Vistra to maintain it for future generations of Texans.”

Disclosure: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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