By Alejandra Martinez, The Texas Tribune
“Texas takes legal action 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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FORT WORTH — In a new attempt to save Fairfield Lake State Park, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department filed a petition to condemn and seize the 5,000-acre property south of Dallas through eminent domain.
The petition was filed in Freestone County District Court Friday morning, after months of unsuccessful negotiations with Dallas-based developer Todd Interests, which plans to turn the former park into a high-end gated subdivision.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wrote in an email that this step was “necessary to pursue acquisition at fair market value to preserve Fairfield Lake State Park and Fairfield Lake for all Texans.”
A spokesperson for Todd Interests said Shawn Todd, the company’s CEO, was unavailable to comment. In a previous interview, Todd said his company purchased the land legally and he is not selling.
Eminent domain experts say Texas can seize the land because the property serves a public purpose as a park.
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 the state that it planned to sell the property and terminate the state’s lease.
The state hoped to buy 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. The state did not.
Earlier this year, the state parks department announced that the park, in Freestone County, was closing after Vistra announced that it planned to sell the property to Todd Interests.
Texans were quick to urge state leaders to save the park.
The department commissioners voted in June to allow the agency to condemn the property, but the agency held off doing so hoping that Todd Interests would agree to sell the land.
The department made two attempts, as required by Texas law, to buy back the park for $103 million, according to documents obtained by The Texas Tribune. Todd Interests denied both offers for the same amount.
The state Legislature appropriated $125 million earlier this year to the department for statewide park acquisitions.
A state appraiser concluded total compensation for the park was valued at $85 million, but the department said in the offer letter that they were willing to offer more than what was concluded in the appraisal report. Todd Interests bought the property for $103 million.
Since the developer’s acquisition, the company has begun construction by building roads at the former park and spending about $1 million a month on construction.
Now that the petition has been filed, the county’s district court judge will need to appoint a panel of local landowners tasked with setting a fair market value for the property. Those landowners will hold a hearing to take testimony on fair market value from witnesses.
If the state pays that amount for the land, it can take immediate possession of the former park. If either party appeals the valuation, then the court conducts a civil trial.
“TPWD and its commissioners remain steadfast in their commitment to reopen a public resource…” the department said in an email. “Fairfield Lake State Park rightfully belongs to the people of Texas who have expressed overwhelming support for saving the property for future generations of public use.”
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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Correction, : An earlier version of this article inaccurately reported how much Todd Interests bought the former state park for. The company bought it for $103 million.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/01/texas-fairfield-lake-state-park-condemnation-petition-eminent-domain/.
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