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Texas parks commissioners vote to pursue Fairfield Lake State Park takeover

Fairfield Lake State Park is closing after being sold to a developer. One lawmaker hopes to change that with a bill that would use eminent domain to seize the property.
Texas Parks and Wildlife
Courtesy Photo
Fairfield Lake State Park is closing after being sold to a developer. One lawmaker hopes to change that with a bill that would use eminent domain to seize the property.

Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners voted unanimously Saturday to condemn Fairfield Lake State Park and pursue eminent domain to take over the 5,000-acre plot of land southeast of Dallas, so it can remain open for public use.

The private property, which was previously leased by the state, was recently sold to Dallas developer for $110 million. The sale kicked off a campaign by park lovers and state lawmakers to save the property.

Developer Todd Interests planned to turn the land into an exclusive gated community with pricey homes and a private golf course.

During the course of the meeting, commissioners and members of the public expressed their concern with using eminent domain, but said saving the park was an extraordinary circumstance requiring action.

The state must now make a formal written offer to the developer to purchase the land at a fair price, according to the department's general counsel. If there is no voluntary agreement, a petition would be filed in Freestone County District Court where a judge would appoint three disinterested property owners in the county as special commissioners.

Those commissioners would determine the fair market value of the property, which the state would then pay to the court registry. Once paid, the state would immediately take possession of the parkland. However, either party can appeal.

In an interview earlier this year, Austin attorney Luke Ellis said the state has the legal right to take land from a private property owner through eminent domain if the land is for public use and they pay “just compensation” to the owner.

“The bigger question that I think will exist in this case is, what is the correct amount of just compensation owed to the property owner that results from the taking?” he said. “I suspect that could be an issue that could be hotly disputed.”

The state operated Fairfield Lake State Park on leased land, free of charge, for roughly 50 years until the sale with Todd Interests was finalized June 1.

But in a letter sent to TPWD on June 6, Shawn, Patrick and Philip Todd with Todd Interests said the state failed to express any interest in buying the land.

TPWD officials dispute those claims. In an emailed statement, agency spokesperson Cory Chandler said it originally offered to buy only the park portion of the property from previous owner Vistra Energy when the company announced its intent to sell, but Vistra said they didn’t want to sell the land in parcels.

The agency said it also made a $25 million offer on a contract assignment for the property, which the developer rejected two weeks ago.

“We have heard from Texans and state leaders who have told us unequivocally that they want to keep Fairfield Lake State Park open for public recreation and enjoyment, not gate it off for exclusive use,” Chandler said. “TPWD’s mission compels us to try to save not only the park, but one of our state’s finest fisheries.”

The Dallas developer also criticized the state’s approach to taking the land using eminent domain, saying they had the opportunity to buy the land

“Is this how you fulfill Governor Abbott’s promise that ‘Texas is wide open for business?’” the letter said. “As a family-owned, Texas-based business and longtime supporters of our state’s pro-business policies, we sincerely hope not.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bekah Morr