AUSTIN, Texas — A Senate leader used a last-minute bill substitution this week to quash the idea that Fairfield Lake State Park can be saved by circumventing a future developer’s water rights permit.
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has operated the Freestone County lake and its surrounding land for 50 years on a lease with Vistra Energy, which owned the adjacent coal plant. When that plant shut down in 2018, Vistra exercised its option to sell the property. Because TPWD failed to act or to partner with a developer, that land is now in the hands of Todd Interests.
Rep. Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, represents the area that includes Fairfield Lake Park. In a last-ditch effort to save the lake as a park, Orr co-authored two bills that would have moved control of water permitting from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, or TPWD.
Spectrum News 1 Anchor Brett Shipp talked to Orr in March, when the park was reopened for daily use temporarily. Orr noted Todd Interest's intention to pump Fairfield Lake to possibly sell water to the Dallas-Fort Worth area would ruin the popular lake.
“Lakefront property is not going to be worth much,” Orr said of the potential development, which is also expected to include a gated community. “And then, of course, there’s people downstream from there that have homes on a creek that might be affected by that as well. And that’s not even talking about the ecological system that exists.”
Developer Shawn Todd of Todd Interests testified on one of Orr’s bills, House Bill 4757, at the Senate Water Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee on Monday. He said the sale of the Fairfield Lake property is no different from the sale of any other farm or ranch in the state.
“Make no mistake, the bill that’s in front of you has solely and only to do with a private property transactions that my sons and I and our teammates entered into this past year with a willing seller and a willing buyer, publicly marketed across the United States of America,” Todd told the committee. “We entered into that contract in good faith. We’ve invested several million dollars at this point in time into that contract.”
Accepting that fact may be tough for TPWD, which has invested an estimated $70 million into the property over the last five decades. Vistra Energy’s position has been that the state was given a multi-year timeline for the eventual sale of the property, including the chance for TPWD to purchase the leased land for a permanent park site.
State leaders had approached Todd to ask him to drop his option on the property, Todd said. But the amount the state was willing to offer to make Todd Interests whole did not come close to the amount the company had spent, to date, on the property.
“There is an emotional factor 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 said, noting that Texas stood for private property rights. “When can the government step into a transaction on something it covets on something that’s not theirs?”
There’s one more detail to note. Fairfield Lake State Park is only 2,400 out of the 5,000-acre Vistra Energy plant site. Even if offered the chance to buy it, the state was only willing to pick up the park site. On the other hand, Todd Interests was committed to buying the full 5,000 acres.
Over two dozen House members were willing to sign on to Orr’s HB 4757, but that didn’t stop Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, from stripping the bill of its teeth and replacing it with a uniform process to have public input into water permits on state park land. Perry, chair of the Senate committee, released the draft on the morning of the hearing.
In Perry’s substitute for HB 4757, the permitting process remains with TCEQ. The public comment option is maintained. It just now extends a hearing to members of the community where any of the TPWD’s 84 park sites are located, which Perry considered to be a smart move, given the millions the state has invested in parkland.
“This has obviously got some emotion attached to it,” said Perry, alluding to the fight to keep Fairfield Lake State Park. “The state and interested parties find themselves in a position nobody wants to be in a lot of times in this legislature, and this is one of them.”
Perry predicted the sale of the property would probably not stop with the transaction between Vistra Energy and Todd Interests.
“I suspect there will be litigation down the road, so I would say that anything you want to discuss, just be prepared,” Perry said. “That could be a litigated conversation.”
Groups such as Environment Texas continue to support Orr’s version of the bill. They also are actively promoting another pair of bills, Senate Bill 1648 and Senate Joint Resolution 74. Both pieces of legislation, carried by Sen. Tan Parker, R- Flower Mound, would spend $500 million to create a Centennial Park Conservation Fund for the purchase of future state park sites. The House will have to agree to the fund.