AUSTIN (KXAN) — A popular state park has closed to the public after almost 50 years in operation. A developer plans to turn the land into a private, gated community with multi-million dollar homes and a golf course.
Fairfield Lake State Park, about 70 miles east of Waco, shut its gates for the last time at 10 p.m. on June 4. The following day, construction equipment arrived on site as the developer, Todd Interests, takes over. But a last-ditch effort by the state to acquire the land could lead to years of litigation.
So how did we get to this point? KXAN has compiled a timeline of the twists, turns and failed negotiations that spanned multiple years.
1968-69: Texas Utilities (now known as Luminant) constructs a dam on Big Brown Creek to create Fairfield Lake.
1971: Big Brown Power Plant opens. Texas Utilities leases land for a state park to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) at no cost. The initial lease is for 25 years but is extended multiple times.
1976: Fairfield Lake State Park opens to the public.
Feb. 2018: Big Brown Power Plant is decommissioned.
Sept. 27, 2018: Vistra Energy, parent company of Luminant, sends a letter to TPWD’s then-executive director, Carter Smith, informing him of their intent to terminate the lease in October 2020 and sell the property.
“We also let them know that it would be up to the new owner to determine whether to continue the lease with the TPWD,” Meranda Cohn, a spokesperson for Vistra, tells KXAN in February 2023. “We also encouraged the state to submit a bid.”
March 2020: TPWD executives visit the Luminant office in Dallas to discuss options. Vistra wants to sell its entire 5,000-acre property as a whole, including the 1,460-acre park. TPWD wants to buy just the park, but Vistra doesn’t want to carve up the property.
At this point, TPWD does not have land acquisition authority or major land acquisition funds, so it cannot afford to purchase the property in its entirety. TPWD tries to work with partners to buy the land. Conservation Equity Management Partners puts in a bid, but it is rejected.
Oct. 2020: Vistra extends the lease with TPWD until fall 2022, contingent on the sale of the land.
Fall 2021: Vistra lists the property for sale online. The asking price is just over $110 million, which is more than the entire annual TPWD state park budget.
Oct. 5, 2021: Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, comes across the property listing in the Dallas Morning News.
“We knew that TPWD leased a portion of the property for 50 years, and that during that half-century span it failed to express any interest in acquiring the property from Luminant,” Todd Interests writes in a June 2023 letter to the Parks and Wildlife Commission. “After Luminant enlisted a real estate firm to market Fairfield Lake… TPWD still took no action. We had no reason to believe that the state of Texas wanted to acquire Fairfield Lake when we made an offer on the property.”
April 21, 2022: Vistra enters into a contract with Todd Interests. The sale price is undisclosed due to confidentiality provisions in the contract.
Aug. 30, 2022: Vistra temporarily extends the lease with TPWD.
September 2022: Arch “Beaver” Aplin, chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, meets with Todd Interests. A spokesperson for Vistra, Brad Watson, said they were not at the negotiating table. “Vistra is in an existing contract with a buyer, and we are not legally permitted to negotiate with any other potential buyer, including the state of Texas,” Watson said in a February 2023 legislative hearing.
Aplin claims Shawn Todd, CEO of Todd Interests, asked for $50 million and 250 acres of land to hand over the contract to TPWD. Aplin counter-offered $6.6 million. “Shawn told me that was not acceptable to him. That wasn’t enough money,” Aplin said in the February 2023 hearing.
Aplin said he then took a different approach by offering $60 million to Vistra for the land, in addition to a conservation easement. “I asked [Todd] to take a philanthropic, altruistic approach, let us pay back his expenses and help me save this state park.”
The developers claim Aplin told them at that point to back out of the contract. “Todd Interests has been asked or told to walk away from this, step away, for no compensation,” attorney Blake Beckham says. “That’s not how the government is supposed to operate in Texas.”
Feb. 13, 2023: TPWD is given a 120-day termination of lease notice.
Feb. 14, 2023: TPWD sends out a press release announcing the park will close on Feb. 28. Meanwhile, State Rep. Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, files House Bill 2332. It would grant TPWD the power of eminent domain to acquire “any property necessary to preserve Fairfield Lake State Park.”
Feb. 27, 2023: At a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, Aplin says TPWD “stands ready and anxious” to negotiate an opportunity to save the park. He tells lawmakers TPWD now wants to purchase the 5,000-acre property in its entirety, not just the state park, over concerns of what the developer will do to the lake.
He says Todd Interests plans to remove 14,000 acre-feet of water and send it to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Aplin says modeling shows the lake elevation would drop 15 feet, almost halving its acreage. “If [Todd] has the right to take the water out, we’re dead in the proverbial water, so to speak,” Aplin says.
Beckham tells lawmakers the developers knew there was a chance they could lose the land to eminent domain, but they didn’t think it was likely. “While there was a contemplation of that, the fact that the state never even approached making a market value offer told us the state really wasn’t that interested,” Beckham says.
“If the state at some point moves toward eminent domain, we think that would be a shame if it got to that,” Beckham says.
Feb 28, 2023: Fairfield Lake State Park closes to the public.
March 6, 2023: State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, files Senate Bill 1656. It is identical to HB 2332.
March 9, 2023. At a House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism meeting, chairman Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, asks TPWD to consider reopening the park temporarily. “I trust you guys know how much time you actually need to put the sign up and say the park is officially closed, but it just seems to me that we may have a bit more time for the public and Texans to enjoy this, to the economic benefit of Fairfield and Freestone County,” Ashby says.
Brad Watson, spokesperson for Vistra, says the company is open to discussing the sale of the Lake Colorado City State Park property to the state. The park is also currently leased to TPWD. “Yes, our company would still seek fair market value,” Watson says. “But such a sale would remove all doubt that the land would forever be used by Texans as a state park.”
March 10, 2023: Orr files House Bill 4757 to replace HB 2332. The new bill focuses on water rights and says any application for water permit changes at Fairfield Lake must first be approved by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
March 14, 2023: Fairfield Lake State Park reopens to the public for day-use only. Entrance fees are waived.
March 23, 2023: At a House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism meeting, Orr introduces the substitute bill, HB 4757.
“I understand that many of my colleagues have reservations about using eminent domain for this purpose, which is why it is not included in the substitute language,” Orr says. “Like my colleagues, I too am a supporter of property rights, and I believe that the park can still be saved without that language included.”
April 6, 2023: The House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism unanimously approves HB 4757, sending it to the full House.
April 21, 2023: The Texas House of Representatives passes HB 4757 by a vote of 131-8.
May 1, 2023: The Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs discusses HB 4757 in a hearing, but leaves it pending in committee. Some senators raise concerns that the bill could open the state up to potential litigation.
“And as a taxpayer, I’m frankly disgusted that Parks and Wildlife could not figure out over multiple years how to purchase a piece of property,” Todd tells the lawmakers.
May 12: 2023: Todd Interests receives a written proposal from Aplin for the state to purchase its contract with Vistra. Aplin offers a $20 million assignment fee and up to $5 in expenses reimbursements. The developers respond on May 23, denying the request.
May 25, 2023: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission votes unanimously to authorize TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz to take “all necessary steps” to purchase the land. The same day, Todd Interests says it receives a letter from the attorney general’s office directing them to preserve evidence, “as if we had been involved in a crime.” The developers call it an act of “intimidation” in a June 6 letter to commissioners.
June 1, 2023: Todd Interests officially purchases the property. “Since taking title, we have begun executing our development plan and executed millions of dollars in related contracts,” the developers say in the June 6 letter.
June 2, 2023: TPWD announces the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will meet on June 10 to consider acquiring the land through eminent domain. “TPWD extended a formal offer to Todd Interests and, with the full support of our commission, we were vocal in our intention to conduct realistic negotiations with realistic conditions,” Yoskowitz says. “Unfortunately, Todd Interests would not work with us, and we now need to pursue other options.”
June 4, 2023: Fairfield Lake State Park closes to the public.
June 5, 2023: Construction equipment begins arriving on site. Meanwhile, TPWD begins removing park equipment and relocating staff.
June 6, 2023: Todd Interests sends a letter to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission expressing its “astonishment” that the commission would consider using eminent domain. “Most striking is the activist message [commissioners] would sent to the entire nation on behalf of the state of Texas,” the developers write. “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.”
June 10, 2023: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission meets to consider acquiring the property through eminent domain.
June 13, 2023: TPWD’s lease officially expires.