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Popular State Park Faces Eminent Domain Takeover

A state park has closed its gates to the public, but government officials hope to reopen the site by enforcing eminent domain.

This contentious battle between the state and a group of private developers is just getting started. 

Today, we’re looking into the debate over Fairfield Lake State Park and what it means for its thousands of annual visitors.

Let’s dive in!

Eminent Domain Takeover Could Save a Popular Texas State Park

A controversy in East Texas is boiling over regarding using eminent domain to condemn a beloved state park. In May 2023, Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, purchased 5,000 acres from the Vistra Energy Corporation. This sale, which included Fairfield Lake State Park, closed for over $110 million.

Less than two weeks later, Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously to reclaim the property through eminent domain. They stated the park was a valuable asset and shouldn’t be closed to the public.

Keep in mind, though; the commission is comprised of unelected officials.

Furthermore, Todd Interests hadn’t engaged in meaningful negotiations or entertained their offers to back out of the deal.

However, the buyers claim that the state is actively misleading the public. According to Todd Interests, the commission failed to include pertinent information regarding the transaction, including that Vistra had already declined to sell to the state.

Misleading Statements by the State Government

According to a June 15th, 2023 press release, these are the misleading statements Todd Interests points out:

First, Chairman Aplin stated that the Commission had offered to buy out the Todd family’s contract with Vistra for $25 million. But Chairman Aplin failed to disclose that the proposal was contingent upon Vistra Energy agreeing to sell the property to the Commission, which Vistra declined to do.

Chairman Aplin also failed to disclose that the Todd family had sent him a written counteroffer on May 23, a full week before the closing of the sale, but the Commission never responded to it. The existence of that counteroffer was withheld from the public during the meeting of the Commission on May 25, if not also from the other Commissioners.

Second, the press release suggests that the Todd family would divert the lake’s water and lower the water level, reducing the shoreline and wildlife.

That is not true.

The lake’s world class fishing and boating venue are at the center of the Todds’ development plan.

Third, Executive Director Yoskowitz stated that the Department had intended to conduct “realistic negotiations,” but that “Todd Interests would not work” with them. Again, these statements are not true.

The Commissioners made a written offer to Vistra on June 1 to purchase the property. But the Commissioners have made no such offer to Todd Interests, ever, and have not communicated with them since the closing.

About Fairfield Lake State Park

Indigenous Americans occupied the land long before modern developers set their sights on Fairfield Lake State Park. These Native nations had rich ties to the area, hunting and fishing along its natural waterways. 

Later, European settlers and enslaved African Americans grew corn and cotton until the soil was depleted, and cattle farmers moved in.

A now-defunct power plant owned by Vistra built Fairfield Lake as a cooling reservoir but allowed the state to lease the land for free for over 45 years. Although the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) never paid for the property’s use, they put millions of dollars towards maintenance over the years. 

Since 1976, locals have flocked to Fairfield Lake State Park to enjoy nature and get out on the water. In its heyday, you could enjoy ten miles of maintained trails on foot, bike, or horseback. Other popular activities included swimming, fishing, and bird-watching. But today, the gates are closed while the legal battle surrounding its ownership rages on.

What is Eminent Domain?

Eminent domain is a highly polarizing topic, particularly among property owners. It’s the power of a governmental body to claim ownership of land, at a fair price, for the benefit of the greater public. It happens when building new roads or railways, but laws regarding the practice have changed.

Today, a state or federal government can use eminent domain to obtain properties deemed a “developmental impediment.” And taking it one step further, they now have the authority to claim land that could potentially increase tax revenue. This seems to be the case regarding the eminent domain of Fairfield Lake State Park.

While some places require the government to make an offer on the property before enforcing the seizure, others don’t. 

The Fifth Amendment requires just compensation for property acquired this way. However, that amount is based on fair market value and doesn’t necessarily consider actual purchase prices, sentimental value, or long-term income potential for existing property owners. 

How Does Todd Interests Plan to Use Fairfield Lake State Park Land?

According to earlier online articles, Todd Interests purchased the state park and another 3,200 acres to build a lavish gated community. The property would include 400 homes and an 18-hole golf course. They would close the lake to the public, and only residents and members would have access.

Named the Freestone Club, this exclusive community could net its developers upwards of one billion dollars. They expect the homes to sell for five to seven million each. 

Although TPWD and its commissioners asked Todd Interests to halt the demolition, the owners claim they’ve received no formal notice of eminent domain on the state park or the rest of the property. As of publication, it appears that the developers are moving forward with their plans. 

What is the Process of Using Eminent Domain to Save a State Park?

As we know, this process only applies to properties that will benefit the public. So enforcing eminent domain to preserve a state park meets this basic requirement. 

Once the government establishes solid reasoning to acquire property, the next step is appraising it. After determining a price, the government will make the owners an offer. If both parties agree on the compensation, the government purchases the land, and the deal closes. 

However, in cases such as Fairfield Lake State Park, it doesn’t appear that Todd Interests will give in so quickly.

Property owners can refuse a deal for two reasons. If the owners don’t think the price is fair, they can get an independent appraisal and make a counteroffer. But if they object to the reason behind the seizure, the government must prove that it benefits the public.

In either case, failure to reach an agreement can mean the case goes to court, where a judge will hear both sides. While landowners can come out on top, it’s rare for a judge to deny eminent domain if the government has met the legal requirements.

The Future of Fairfield Lake State Park is Uncertain

With new developments rapidly emerging, we can’t say what’ll happen to Fairfield Lake. And while we hate to see the destruction of our beloved scenic destinations, it’s possible the state made some mistakes in the process of enforcing eminent domain on the state park. No matter the results, we’ll be sure to keep you posted!

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