By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune
“Texas Parks and Wildlife Department opts for eminent domain to save Fairfield Lake State Park” 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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The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department voted unanimously to use eminent domain to seize a 5,000-acre property south of Dallas that included Fairfield Lake State Park on Saturday, citing the need to preserve a state park enjoyed by thousands of Texans.
After months of stalled legislative efforts and failed negotiations to secure the park, the state opted to seize the land from Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, who purchased the property in February for $110.5 million. Commissioners were not eager to use the power of eminent domain to condemn the property, but the agency ultimately decided this instance was an exceptional case of public interest.
“I think we have a clear duty to act for the greater good for all Texans. While we have the power of eminent domain, that power should be used sparingly and reluctantly. In fact it’s been nearly four decades since we’ve last used it,” said Jeffery Hildebrand, a Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner, just before the commission voted to condemn the property.
Because the property serves a public purpose as a park, eminent domain experts say Texas can seize the private land, even if the developer doesn’t want to sell.
Next, the state will notify Todd of the condemnation decision and make an offer for the property. The state and the developer will negotiate over how much Texas will pay for the almost 5,000 acres. If they do not reach an agreement, the issue can end up in court.
During Saturday’s public meeting, residents of Freestone County, environmental advocates and lawmakers testified in favor of condemnation to save a critical public asset for future Texans. Texas State Parks Division Director Rodney Franklin noted that 80% of the public comments the agency received ahead of the decision were in support of using eminent domain to save the park.
The state had leased the park at no charge from Vistra Corp. since the 1970’s. When the energy company closed a coal power plant on the property they looked to sell the land. The state hoped to just buy the 1,820-acres of Fairfield Lake State Park, but Vistra didn’t want to sell piecemeal. According to the energy company, the state did not offer to buy the entire property.
Real estate developer Shawn Todd and his family firm, Todd Interests, purchased all 5,000 acres with the intention of turning the property into an exclusive gated community, which would include multimillion-dollar homes and a private golf course.
The park shuttered in February when the sale was announced and the agency scrambled to try to keep the space open to the public. Several efforts failed.
A bill that would have allowed the agency to use eminent domain to seize the park’s land died this legislative session. The bill’s failure to pass doesn’t preclude the agency from using eminent domain. Lawmakers did create a conservation fund that, with voter approval, will provide an additional $1 billion to buy more land for the state parks system.
Negotiations between the developer and the state have not been successful. Todd Interests declined the agency’s $25 million offer to give up the company’s contract so the state could then purchase the property from Vistra. This prompted the TPWD to pursue the eminent domain and condemnation option as a last ditch effort to keep the property in the public’s hands.
Last month TPWD commissioners gave the agency’s executive director the freedom to take “all necessary steps” to acquire the park. While all of those who spoke on Saturday were in favor of saving the park, many lamented that eminent domain was the vehicle to achieve that end goal.
“We do regret that this matter has come to this point and there was not the ability to resolve this issue before these steps were necessary,” said Kevin Good, the president of Texans for State Parks. “The agency should be proactive about trying to avoid these situations in the future.”
Todd maintained that he has engaged in “good faith conversations” with Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chair Arch “Beaver” Aplin III about the property since September 2022.
“The State of Texas, however, has spent the last eight months working to derail our transaction and diminish our transactional rights,” Todd said in a June letter to the Parks and Wildlife Commission.
The letter said the company has begun executing its development plan and investing millions of dollars in related contracts.
While several steps in the condemnation process remain, including an independent review of the property’s value, it’s not clear when the park could reopen.
“This park is precious to our local community as well as park lovers across the state,” Rep. Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, said at Saturday’s meeting. Orr’s district includes Fairfield Lake State Park. She said when the park’s future came into question in February, her office was inundated with messages from Texans asking her to do anything they could to save the park.
“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. If condemnation isn’t used in this circumstance, and if now is not the time, then when?” Orr said.
After voting to condemn the property, the commission made an effort to soften their use of eminent domain. The groups adopted a second motion to instruct the executive director to create a commission policy restricting the power of eminent domain to “extraordinary and unusual situations like Fairfield State Park.”
Disclosure: Texas Parks And Wildlife Department and Conservation Fund have been financial supporters 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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A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the state offered Todd Interests $25 million to buy the property, but the state’s offer was so that Todd Interests would give up its contract so the state could then purchase the property from Vistra.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/10/texas-fairfield-lake-state-park-eminent-domain/.
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