The Texas government and private developers are continuing their fight over the Fairfield Lake area as various parties vie to take control of the privately held land.
Dallas-based Todd Interests, led by founder Shawn Todd, purchased a 5,000-acre plot of land in East Texas from Vistra Energy last spring. Prior to that sale, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) had leased nearly 1,900 acres on this property for over 50 years, which TPWD operated as Fairfield Lake State Park.
When the land was put up for sale, the park faced closure unless TPWD decided to purchase the property. The state declined to do so, and the property went to an open bidding process in which TPWD had another opportunity to acquire the land.
Todd Interests made the winning offer on the land listed for $110 million and announced plans to construct a golf course and small luxury community on a portion of the 5,000-acre plot, as reported by The Dallas Express. Shawn Todd insisted that the development plans would be made with a conscious respect for the surrounding environment.
Despite its previous opportunity to purchase the land and the current agreement between Todd Interests and Vistra Energy, TPWD has looked to government action to prevent the sale of the lands.
During the recent general session of the Texas Legislature, several bills were filed to either stop the sale or prevent similar events from happening in the future.
Rep. Angelia Orr (R-Itasca) initially filed a bill to seize the land through eminent domain. However, the bill was later changed to stop the sale by allowing the TPWD to dictate the water usage of the lake, effectively preventing the water from being used for residential or commercial purposes. The bill ultimately failed.
Orr also filed a separate bill along the same lines to enable TPWD to “seek injunctive relief to provide for the preservation of the historical public access to and uses … of Fairfield Lake.” This bill passed the House but died in the Senate’s Water, Agriculture, & Rural Affairs Committee.
Legislative proposals from the Senate fared considerably better, however, with two items passing the legislature. Instead of attempting to stop the private acquisition of Fairfield Lake, the Senate pursued a plan to prevent similar disputes by establishing a fund dedicated to acquiring parklands.
Senate Bill 1648, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott late last month, will create the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to provide for “the creation and improvement of state parks.” In order for the fund to be established, however, Texas voters must approve a constitutional amendment as described by Senate Joint Resolution 74.
The fund would enable TPWD to more easily purchase parks that are currently on leased land.
Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said, “Park lovers are reeling in the big one with this bill. The Centennial Parks Conservation Fund could create dozens of new state parks, helping protect Texas’ outdoor way of life.”
“Generations of Texans have grown up spending quality time outdoors. But as the Lone Star State’s population grows rapidly, we’re at risk of losing some of the iconic, rustic character of our state,” he continued. “Thanks to the Legislature, we can turn this around.”
“This fund will protect Texas’ valuable natural areas and the wildlife which rely on them – and create abundant opportunities for Texans to camp, hike, hunt and fish,” Metzger concluded.
However, TPWD also received additional funding through Senate Bill 30, leading the department to make a last-minute offer to Vistra Energy for the entire 5,000 acres on June 1 to the tune of $95 million in taxpayer funds.
In a letter obtained by The Dallas Express, Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, the TPWD Commission chairman and CEO of Buc-ee’s, said, “the TPWD has strong support from the Legislature to protect and preserve the state park and Fairfield Lake for all of the people in the State of Texas.”
“With new financial support from the Legislature, TPWD is now in a position to pursue acquisition of the entire 5,000-acre property at fair market value,” he added, noting that the agency could close as early as July 31.
Nevertheless, on June 4 the state park closed to the public and began clearing out.
Aplin said at the time, “Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioners continue to pursue options for saving Fairfield Lake State Park, including through condemnation.”
TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz added, “We look forward to having the opportunity to welcome you again someday.”
Todd Interests, meanwhile, has denounced the methods and claims of TPWD, suggesting the government has wrongfully attempted to subvert the private transaction despite having repeated chances to purchase the property.
“We cannot being to express our astonishment that the officials appointed by Governor Abbott and approved by Lt. Governor Patrick and the Texas Senate are considering the condemnation of private property that TPWD had numerous opportunities to acquire,” reads a June 6 letter provided to The Dallas Express by Shawn Todd.
Todd Interests pointed to purchase offers made to TPWD by the previous owner in 2018 and 2020, in addition to TPWD’s failure to make an offer on the property after the listing was made public in 2021.
“So, on April 21, 2022 – four years after TPWD was given notice of [Vistra Energy subsidiary] Luminant’s intent to dispose of the Property – Todd Interests, a willing buyer, executed a binding contract or sale with Luminant, a willing seller,” the letter enumerates.
Even after the contract, Todd Interests had “good faith conversations with Chairman Aplin” about the land to potentially reach an agreement, but “Chairman Aplin made no secret of his desire for our transaction to fail, and after we refused to simply walk away from our business transaction he made numerous verbal threats, apparently orchestrated multiple failed legislative actions and in our opinion, spoke many untruths,” the letter claims.
Todd Interests objected strongly to the possibility that TPWD would use its power of eminent domain to seize the property, especially since “TPWD declined an opportunity to purchase the Property. Twice.”
“It then tried to interfere with the contractual rights of private parties through threats, intimidation and misstatement of facts, trying to purchase the property for less than we were paying,” the letter continues. “A state once considered the vanguard of private property rights would now take from its citizens and diminish the rights of sellers, buyers, and private-property owners of every order.”
The TPWD will meet on June 10 to consider moving forward with an eminent domain strategy in order to seize the property.