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Texas Claims State Park in ‘Extraordinary’ Act of Eminent Domain To Try To Stop Developer


Jun 12, 2023
More than 5,000 acres, including Fairfield Lake about 100 miles southeast of downtown Dallas, was sold to a Dallas developer earlier this month before eminent domain was claimed. (Hortenstine Ranch Co.)

Texas officials are planning to use eminent domain to stop a Dallas developer from building a luxury residential community with multimillion-dollar homes and a golf course on part of a state park.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously Saturday to condemn more than 5,000 acres in Central Texas, including more than 1,800 acres comprising Fairfield Lake State Park in what they called an “extraordinary” and “unusual” action.

The decision was made as a last resort by hesitant commissioners, some of whom voiced their concerns about eminent domain, while saying the commission needed to save Fairfield Lake State Park, which has been used as a state park attracting more than 80,000 visitors a year for half-a-century.

Dallas developer Shawn Todd recently acquired the acreage through his development arm, Todd Interests, from Vistra, the Irving, Texas-based parent company of TXU Energy and Luminant, for an undisclosed sum. Todd had planned to build a luxury residential development on the land.

The commission also adopted a motion to restrict the use of eminent domain in the future, with the matter expected to be fully heard at a meeting scheduled for August.

The property outlined in yellow represents the more than 5,000 acres condemned by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission. The red portion has historically been known as Fairfield Lake State Park. The entire property was condemned to maintain the integrity of the park, officials said. (Texas Parks & Wildlife)

“We have zero interest in condemning local lands to acquire property for parks,” said Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, who is chairman of the nine-member Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, during the emergency hearing. “We don’t take this decision lightly today and we see this as a one-time event of extraordinary and unusual circumstances to save a beloved state park.”

Aplin, who is also co-founder and CEO of Buc-ee’s, said the Central Texas state park, which sits between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, is known for attracting visitors from throughout the Lone Star State. He led a public hearing Saturday in which state representatives, county officials and people in the local business community vocally told the commission they needed to vote to save the state park.

In 2021, Vistra listed the 5,025 acres about 100 miles southeast of downtown Dallas, including Fairfield Lake, a more than 2,400-acre recreational body of water, for $110.55 million. Todd did not immediately return an interview request from CoStar News.

Prior to the state agency condemning the land, Aplin noted that Commissioner Blake Rowling, who is also president of Dallas-based TRT Holdings, had decided to recuse himself from the vote because he’s working on a similar development in Fort Worth, Texas, and wanted to avoid any perception of conflict of interest. TRT Holdings owns the Omni Hotels chain and is one of the developing partners on PGA of America-anchored mixed-use development in Frisco, Texas.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission have leased acreage for Fairfield Lake State Park since 1971 from the company that is now known as Vistra. In all, the commission has leased more than 1,821 acres of the more than 5,000 acres surrounding the lake once owned by the energy company. The lease in which Todd Interests is the new landlord is set to expire on Tuesday, which is why the state and its attorneys are moving ahead with condemning the property.

The state has sought to buy the land used for the park’s purposes with Vistra, but the $25 million offer was declined by the energy company, Rodney Franklin, director for state parks told the commission on Saturday.

“We’ve looked at potential options to keep the park open over time,” Franklin said, including working with other bidders that had agreed to lease the property back to the state. “Those bids were unsuccessful. We found out [Todd Interests] had no interest in continuing the park in its operations and we would have to vacate the property by June 13th.”

The property has some houses alongside the private lake that were once the site of company meetings and other corporate events. (Hortenstine Ranch Co.)

In learning more about the developer’s plans, Franklin said it would reduce the lake by a third and would be detrimental to one of the state’s most productive fisheries. The boat ramps would also be unusable about 80% of the time because of the reduced water levels, he said.

This is why the more than 5,000 acres of the property are being condemned rather than just the acreage in which the park has historically operated, he said. In all, the Texas Parks and Wildlife has invested more than $72 million on improvements to the property it has leased for decades, with a lakeside public park area with camping sites, three concrete boat ramps, equestrian trails and hiking trails.

An attorney representing the state told the commission on Saturday that eminent domain is rarely used. The next steps in the process will include having a valuation of the property to offer the developer a fair price for the condemned land. The state’s attorney general’s office has sent letters to Todd Interests to retain relevant documents and to leave the state’s improvements to the property intact during the process.

About 80% of the letters and comments submitted to the commission for consideration were in support of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission condemning the land and saving the park, including those in Freestone County, where the park sits, saying the local economy with visitors unable to camp, hike or fish at the shuttered park.

More than a dozen individuals spoke ahead of the commissioner’s vote on Saturday, many of which touted their multi-generational ties to the land in Texas. One speaker said the move to save the park would ensure the future of more than 250 species of wildlife, including the bald eagle. Another touted the central location as being a decades-long place where Texas families could meet for reunions and commune with nature. A speaker even noted the historical and unmarked graves at the state park that could be upended by a developer rather than being the final resting spot for early pioneers.

“In a pro-growth, private land state, such as ours, there’s this constant tension between property rights, natural resource conservation and commerce,” said David Yeates, a fifth-generation Texan, who is familiar with what it takes to fund state parks and residential developments. “It’s pretty hard to thread the needle sometimes and it can be very vexing. While we all would’ve preferred a different outcome, I support this action only because it’s an existing state park.”

Prior to voting to condemn the property, Commissioner Jeffery Hildebrand, founder of Houston-based Hilcorp Energy, said it has been nearly four decades since the commission last voted to claim a property through eminent domain.

“We have a clear duty to act for the greater good of all Texans,” he added.

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