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Dallas developer starts construction at former Fairfield Lake State Park despite threat of land seizure

Dallas developer starts construction at former Fairfield Lake State Park despite threat of land seizure” 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 wooden welcome sign and the brick columns at the front gate are gone. So is the green ticket office where visitors would buy entry passes for Fairfield Lake State Park. In their place is a poster with a rendering of a gated golf course community by Todd Interests, the park’s new owner.

The Dallas-based developer has begun construction at the former state park and is building roads at the site. Shawn Todd, the company’s founder and CEO, said the company is spending about $1 million a month on construction.

Meanwhile, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department — whose commissioners voted in June to allow the agency to condemn the 5,000-acre property and seize it through eminent domain — is still holding out hope that Todd Interests will agree to sell the land to the state despite months of unsuccessful negotiations.

Texans first learned the state park’s future was in jeopardy when Texas Parks and Wildlife announced that the park, in Freestone County, about 100 miles south of Dallas, was closing in February because it was on leased land and the owner was selling the property to Todd Interests.

The agency has yet to file paperwork to initiate condemnation in court.

“I can’t speak to what [Todd Interests is] thinking is at the moment, but I can say from our side that we would certainly like to come to an agreement and avoid having to move through that [court] process,” said Cory Chandler, the agency’s deputy communications director.

As required by Texas law, TPWD said it sent Todd Interests two offer letters since commissioners gave the agency authority to use eminent domain. The final letter was sent Aug. 3, and the company had two weeks to respond.

The agency did not disclose how much it offered for the land, but Chandler said it was “not any less than fair market value.” The state Legislature appropriated $125 million earlier this year to the agency for park acquisition statewide.

If the company doesn’t agree to sell, Chandler said, TPWD would need to decide whether to move forward with condemnation.

In an interview, Todd said his company purchased the land legally and he is not selling.

“The money appropriated for buying parks was from willing sellers. And we’re not a willing seller,” Todd said.

Since the purchase, Todd has held several press conferences, including one in front of the Freestone County courthouse where he said the state is abusing his private property rights.

“This is much broader than my business transaction. That’s taking people’s property,” Todd said during a radio interview in July.

Eminent domain can be used for a “public purpose”

David Yoskowitz, TPWD’s executive director, said in a July letter to Freestone County Commissioners that the agency “remain[s] willing to negotiate with the new property owner and optimistic for a mutually beneficial outcome.”

If Todd Interests doesn’t agree to a sale, eminent domain experts say Texas can seize the land because the property serves a public purpose as a park.

Andrew Morriss, a Texas A&M law professor who specializes in eminent domain, said the first step would be a petition for condemnation filed in a Freestone County court, which would then appoint a panel of local landowners tasked with setting a fair market value for the property. The state would have to pay that amount for the land.

Either party could appeal the valuation and leave the final decision on the price to a judge.

“In this case, it’s definitely better to be Parks and Wildlife than the developer,” Morriss said.

“Eminent domain is, in general, pretty favorable to the condemning agency.”

State didn’t bid on park property initially

Welcoming more than 80,000 visitors in 2022, Fairfield Lake State Park is known for its towering elm, pecan and ash trees, as well as its lake that drew anglers trying to catch catfish, largemouth bass and other fish.

The battle over the park’s ownership has been brewing for years.

The park opened in 1976 on land the state leased from the energy company Vistra Corp. at no charge. Since then, the state said it has invested about $80 million into renovations and improvements to the park.

In 2018, Vistra shut down the coal-fired power plant it operated across the lake from the park and notified TPWD that it planned to sell the property and terminate the state’s lease.

The state hoped to buy only the 1,820 acres that included the park. Vistra, which didn’t want to sell the land in parts, said it encouraged the state to submit a bid to buy the entire property, but the state did not.

In February, Vistra announced that it planned to sell the property to Todd Interests for $110.5 million.

As visitors said their goodbyes on the park’s last day, TPWD and lawmakers at the Capitol scrambled to try to save the park.

In May, Parks and Wildlife offered Todd Interests $25 million to give up the company’s contract so the state could purchase the property directly from Vistra, but the company declined, saying in a letter to the agency that the company has “spent millions of dollars in due diligence and months of planning.”

Both sides lobbying local leaders

The public battle over the land has seen Todd question TPWD’s authority to use eminent domain and accuse the chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, Arch H. “Beaver” Aplin III — who is the founder and president of Texas-based Buc-ee’s stores — of abusing his authority.

“Buc-ee’s beavers restrooms might be clean but I’m gonna tell you this, [Aplin’s] leadership and his appointed leadership is dirty and he is absolutely wiping private property rights away in his room,” Todd said during a radio interview in July.

Morriss, the Texas A&M law professor, said Todd’s arguments “would be great arguments to make to the Legislature to change eminent domain law, but I don’t think they work as a legal argument to stop the state doing what it has the power to do.”

Freestone County commissioners have sided with Todd Interests and sent a letter in June to the state calling the use of eminent domain an “abuse of power and government overreach.”

At a meeting in July, county Commissioner Lloyd Lane said Parks and Wildlife “look[s] a little greedy” for wanting to seize the former park property. He said Todd’s proposed development could bring an estimated $20 million of annual tax revenue to the county and the school district.

“I hate for us to miss out on a tax base and I hate for us to see a violation of property rights,” Lane said at the meeting.

Yoskowitz, the TPWD executive director, responded to the letter in July, saying he was taken aback by the commissioners’ “dramatic change in position” after their initial support to save the park. He wrote that the agency’s vote to seize the land was done “reluctantly, knowing that these types of actions should be used sparingly.”

Fort Worth native Misti Little, who visited the park as a child each spring and biked along its nature trails, is now a member of the Save Fairfield Lake State Park group. She said Todd’s ongoing construction is causing environmental damage that can’t be easily repaired.

“We are concerned that [Todd Interests] is going to make it much harder for Texas Parks and Wildlife to recover from this,” Little said. “You can’t get rare prairies back or old-growth forests back. That’s the aggravating part.”

Disclosure: 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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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/08/10/texas-fairfield-lake-state-park-eminent-domain/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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