Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Fights to Preserve Fairfield Lake State Park Amidst Lease Loss

Sumesh Bhaila

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Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is making efforts to acquire Fairfield Lake State Park, a 1,820-acre park in Texas, after losing its lease on the land earlier this year. The park had been operating on leased land for several decades until the owner, Vistra Corp., sold it to a developer. Visitors bid farewell to the park in February, believing it would be permanently closed. However, a temporary agreement was reached with the new owner to keep the park open while the state explored options.

During a recent meeting, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission granted the agency's executive director the authority to take all necessary steps to acquire the property, indicating a strong commitment to preserving the park. Chair Arch H. "Beaver" Aplin III emphasized the need for more parkland in Texas and expressed determination to protect Fairfield Lake State Park for current and future generations.

TPWD has sufficient funds to purchase the park and has made an offer to buy the 5,000 acres of land that includes the park. However, the finalization of the contract between the new owner, Todd Interests, and TPWD is pending. Shawn Todd, the founder, and CEO of Todd Interests, acknowledged receiving an offer from TPWD and stated that his company's contract will soon be finalized. He also mentioned that his company proposed TPWD, which they felt would benefit both the Texas parks and the state.

In response to Todd's comments, TPWD has not yet responded to the proposal. Todd had previously testified before state senators, expressing disappointment that TPWD had not taken advantage of previous opportunities to bid on the property. If TPWD cannot negotiate a purchase of the property, it remains uncertain how the state will proceed. The option of acquiring the park through eminent domain was not discussed during the meeting, and a bill that would have enabled such action did not pass during this legislative session.

Fairfield Lake State Park has been leased by TPWD for over 50 years and has seen significant investments in renovations and improvements totaling approximately $80 million. In 2018, Vistra notified TPWD of its intention to sell the 5,000-acre property and terminate the state's lease. Vistra made this decision after closing down a nearby coal-fired power plant. While TPWD initially sought to buy only the portion of the property containing the park, Vistra preferred to sell the entire property. In February, Vistra announced its plan to sell the property to Todd Interests, intending to develop a private golf course and gated community on the land.

TPWD officials expressed their intention to not only keep Fairfield Lake State Park open but also to expand it if the land can be reacquired. The park's potential loss has highlighted the significance of state parks in Texas, prompting calls for increased efforts to acquire more parkland. Two bills, Senate Bill 1648 and Senate Joint Resolution 74, have been approved by the Legislature and await the governor's consideration. If passed, these bills would establish a Centennial Parks Conservation Fund with a $1 billion investment to acquire additional land for the state parks system.

The preservation of Fairfield Lake State Park serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting and expanding Texas' state parks, ensuring that residents and visitors can continue to enjoy these natural treasures for years to come.

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