Mary Navarro's children collect shells and skip rocks from the bank of Fairfield Lake at Fairfield Lake State Park on Feb. 27. After leasing the land for the park for decades, the state is trying to buy the land after it was sold to a developer earlier this year. Photo by Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune.

By Alejandra Martinez, the Texas Tribune

May 26, 2023

Texas isn’t giving up on saving Fairfield Lake State Park, a 1,820-acre park that operated on leased land for decades until the owner sold it earlier this year. On Thursday, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners gave the agency’s executive director the power to take “all necessary steps” to acquire the property that includes the park.

In late February, visitors said their goodbyes by collecting seashells, skipping rocks and casting their fishing lines from a boat on what they believed was the last day the park, about 100 miles south of Dallas, would be open to the public.

The park had announced it was closing after Vistra Corp., the energy company that had leased the land at no cost to the state, reached an agreement to sell the land to a developer. The state later struck a deal with the new owner to let the park remain open temporarily while the state explored its options.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chair Arch H. “Beaver” Aplin III said during Thursday’s meeting the agency has “sufficient funds” to purchase the park and has made an offer to buy the 5,000 acres of land that includes the park.

“We need more parkland in Texas, not less. And this is a critical moment for Texas during our centennial celebration year,” Aplin said. “I’m committed, and these commissioners are committed, to keeping the park, and we’re determined to protect it for the present and future generations to that end.”

Vistra didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Shawn Todd, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Todd Interests, said Thursday that his company’s contract to buy the property that includes the park isn’t final but will go through “in a matter of days.” Todd said he received an offer from TPWD, “refreshingly saying that they were respecting private property rights and made us an offer to purchase our contract.”

“We responded timely, and in good faith to that offer with a proposal that we felt would have been an incredible win for the Texas parks and for the state of Texas,” Todd said. “And candidly a significant sacrifice to our family and firm.”

He said the agency has not yet responded to the company’s proposal.

Testifying before state senators earlier this month, Todd said the state had many chances to bid on the property.

“This is an emotional factor,” Todd said. “And as a taxpayer, I’m frankly disgusted [Texas Parks and Wildlife] could not figure out over multiple years how to purchase a piece of property.

It’s unclear how the state will proceed if it can’t negotiate a purchase of the property. TPWD officials did not mention acquiring the park through eminent domain during the meeting. A bill that would have allowed the agency to use eminent domain to seize the park’s land died this legislative session.

For more than 50 years, the agency has leased the land for Fairfield Lake State Park, which opened in 1976. Since then, the state said, it has invested about $80 million into renovations and improvements to the park.

But in 2018, Vistra notified TPWD that it intended to sell the 5,000-acre property and terminate the state’s lease. The company decided to sell the land after shutting down the coal-fired power plant it operated across the lake from the park.

TPWD officials have said the agency initially wanted to buy only the portion of the property that included the park, but Vistra didn’t want to sell it in parts. A Vistra spokesperson said the company 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. The company said it wants to build a private golf course and gated community on the property.

TPWD officials said during Thursday’s meeting that if the agency can reacquire the land, it will not only keep the park open but expand it.

Fairfield is one of 15 state parks that sit on leased land. Park advocates have pushed state leaders to buy more parkland so there won’t be a repeat of the Fairfield debacle.

“The potential loss of this park has really helped remind us how important our state parks are to Texas,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas. “Texas needs more state parks, not fewer. It would be a shame if we lost this park.”

Lawmakers have filed two bills, Senate Bill 1648 and Senate Joint Resolution 74, that would, with voter approval, create a Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to invest $1 billion to buy more land for the state parks system. Both have been approved by the Legislature and sent to the governor’s desk for his consideration.

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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