AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers are changing their approach in an effort to save a Texas state park from permanent closure and development into a multi-million dollar private community.
Fairfield Lake State Park, about 70 miles east of Waco, was closed to the public at the end of February, after almost 50 years in operation. It has since temporarily reopened but is slated for permanent closure later this summer.
The land is not owned by the state, but is instead leased from Vistra Energy, which formerly operated a power plant near the park. Vistra is in contract to sell the land to Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, which plans to turn the site into an exclusive gated community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course.
State Rep. Angelia Orr, whose district includes the park, filed legislation last month to prevent that from happening. House Bill 2332 would grant the state power to acquire the land through eminent domain. But that’s no longer how lawmakers are trying to approach a possible acquisition of the park.
In a Thursday public hearing of the House Committee on Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Orr introduced a substitute bill removing the eminent domain language.
“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 said. “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.”
The substitute bill would instead require the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to approve any application for new or amended water rights related to Fairfield Lake, as well as adjoining Big Brown Creek. TPWD officials had previously raised concerns about how the developer planned to use the water.
“With this process in place, I believe the lake and the park can be preserved,” Orr said.
Right now, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for evaluating and approving applications to change water permits. If passed, the bill would mean changes to the permits would have to be approved by TPWD in addition to the TCEQ.
The water permit for the lake is currently for industrial use. Vistra says it has not used the water since 2018, when the power plant closed. TPWD Chairman Arch ‘Beaver’ Aplin previously told lawmakers that Todd Interests wants to change the water permit from industrial to consumptive, residential and recreational, and send thousands of acre-feet to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
“They want to be able to move 14,000 acre-feet, which is over a third of the water at the conservation pool level,” Aplin told lawmakers in a March 9 committee hearing. “The lake will not be the lake as we know it when you stick a straw in it and take a third of the water out of the lake. It just won’t.”
The change in tactic prompted some opposition in Thursday’s public hearing.
“Having looked at the [substitute bill], I have to say I’m a little disappointed,” said Alex Ortiz with the Texas Sierra Club. “Not because it doesn’t accomplish the goal [of saving the park], but this is actually the exact purpose of why eminent domain exists in our legal system — to preserve and to make sure that lands are being put to public use where they’re performing a significant public good.”
Blake Beckham, a representative for Todd Interests, said at a previous hearing that it would be a “shame” if the state moved toward using eminent domain to acquire the property, but that if it got to that point, the company would calculate the economic value of the entire project as completed.
Texas law states eminent domain can only be used if the land involved is acquired for a public purpose and the landowner is adequately compensated. While Todd Interests and Vistra have not disclosed the sale price, citing confidentiality provisions in their contract, the property was listed online for more than $110 million.
The updated bill was left pending in committee Thursday, but lawmakers are expected to vote at a future hearing.