While state officials are planning to vote Saturday on whether to attempt to use eminent domain to claim Fairfield Lake State Park, the Dallas-based developer who owns the land wants Texans to know that the state had its chance to buy the park multiple times and failed to do so.
The park closed to the public earlier this week after Todd Interests closed its contract with Vistra, which had leased the land to the state at no cost for about 50 years. Vistra first alerted park officials it would be terminating its lease in 2018 and gave Texas the opportunity to purchase the property before eventually listing it for $110 million in 2021.
While most of the nitty-gritty details of the saga surrounding the state’s loss of the park have remained between businessmen and behind closed doors, evidence of the drama and last-ditch efforts have slowly trickled into the public eye, including a letter from the Attorney General’s Office to Todd Interests, a $95 million offer from the state to Vistra in June and a letter penned by Todd Interests’ three partners calling the state’s efforts to buy the land “sabotage.”
Following the publication of the letters, Todd Interests founder and CEO Shawn Todd described to The Dallas Morning News a pattern of what he called intimidation from multiple state entities and lawmakers in a months-long effort to prevent his family’s firm from acquiring the 5,000-acre property about 80 miles southeast of Dallas. His firm plans to build a luxury gated community on the land, including multimillion-dollar homes, a golf course and a country club.
A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesperson told The News it would not be providing interviews ahead of Saturday’s meeting.
Todd said his firm’s interactions with Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, began in September after Todd Interests had the land under contract with Vistra.
He said Aplin told him he didn’t want to interfere with a business transaction but asked if the park could remain open within the development because it would be “incredibly embarrassing” for the state to lose a park during the department’s 100th anniversary. Todd declined.
Late last year, Todd said, he and Vistra CEO Jim Burke had a closed-door meeting at the Capitol in Austin with several state legislators and TPWD leaders who “expressed their strong sentiments against Vistra selling their property to our firm.” A Vistra spokesperson confirmed Burke was at the meeting.
The conversation ended with Todd Interests and Vistra agreeing to extend their contract 30 days to let the state bring an offer to them, which it did.
Todd said he and Vistra declined the offer in February, but that his firm “gave them multiple opportunities to buy the park” afterward.
Text messages between Todd, Aplin and Burke detail some of these opportunities, including Todd offering to complete his firm’s purchase of the land then selling the majority of the existing park to the state for $60 million, The News’ editorial board reported. Aplin declined, saying the state wanted to buy the entire 5,000 acres.
In a June 2 news release, TPWD Executive Director David Yoskowitz said the department wanted “to conduct realistic negotiations with realistic conditions. Unfortunately, Todd Interests would not work with us, and now we need to pursue other options.”
Todd called this a lie.
“The narratives being told by Chairman Aplin that the state had the money [to buy the park] and the Todds wouldn’t let the state buy it was nothing further from the truth,” he said, adding that the state “always wanted something on the cheap.”
Vistra confirmed to The News on Thursday that it had not received a formal offer on the property from the state before a June 1 letter offering $95 million. A spokesperson said in an email the company was bound by its contract with Todd Interests and could not legally negotiate with the state.
Todd said he didn’t hear from Aplin from February until May 12, when the state made a $25 million offer to buy Todd Interests out of its contract. During that time, at least three bills related to Fairfield Lake condemnation failed in the Texas Legislature.
In an email, TPWD said the department attempted “on many occasions” to buy Fairfield Lake State Park and after the property was under contract, it “took persistent and extraordinary steps to negotiate an outcome that would benefit Todd Interests while preserving a public asset.”
“We have heard from Texans and state leaders who have told us unequivocally that they want to keep Fairfield Lake State Park open for public recreation and enjoyment, not gate it off for exclusive use,” the statement said. “TPWD’s mission compels us to try to save not only the park, but one of our state’s finest fisheries.”
Todd said if the state moves forward with legal action it will be much pricier than if it purchased the land years earlier because, among other expenses, it will have to pay his firm for loss of profit on homes that will already be under construction and loss of economic opportunity which he estimates to be hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Todd Interests didn’t cause this problem,” he said.
This weekend’s public meeting between nine governor-appointed commissioners is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at TPWD headquarters in Austin. Those who cannot attend in person can watch online or listen on the phone by following instructions on the department’s website.
In-person attendees wanting to make public comment can begin registering at 9 a.m. Public comments can also be made in an online form until 5 p.m. Friday.
According to the meeting agenda, commissioners will first have a closed executive session, then discuss using eminent domain to condemn the acreage that contains Fairfield Lake State Park. Public comment is typically heard before any vote is taken.
The agenda includes a recommendation from parks department staff for the commission to use the power of eminent domain “to preserve and expand” the park.
If the vote passes on the resolution, Yoskowitz will be authorized to file a petition for condemnation on the property.