You wouldn’t think that would be possible, but you would be wrong.
Texas is at risk of losing a state park forever.
Fairfield Lake State Park, an 1,800-acre gem overlooking a beautiful 2,400-acre lake, nestled within the convergence of three Texas ecoregions – the Post Oak Savannah, Piney Woods and Blackland Prairies – and along the bustling I-45 corridor between Houston and DFW, could be lost to private development if a deal is not reached soon to continue the park’s existence.
“We are absolutely, clearly in dire straits of losing our park,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said during a recent briefing at a commission work session.
Texas owns most of its state parks, but not Fairfield Lake.
The lake was created in 1969 by Dallas Power and Light Company, Texas Electric Service Company and Texas Power and Light Company to cool the coal plant, Big Brown. Those three companies merged and eventually became TXU Energy, which eventually conveyed the property to Luminant, a sister company under Vistra Corp. The park property has been leased to the state since 1971, free of cost.
In 2018, Big Brown shut down and Vistra Corp/Luminant gave TPWD a two-year notice that it was going to end the lease. Since then, the lease has been extended, allowing the park to continue operations after 2020.
The park was put up publicly for sale in 2021, and the entire property, (the TPWD park, lake and additional land totaling more than 5,000 acres) is currently under contract with a private developer out of Dallas, Todd Interests. The lease with TPWD can be terminated with 120 days of notice and the park could close as early as this month. Public access to the lake would end, too.
Despite the hope to buy and eventually expand the park, TPWD remains in a challenging position. The property is under contract and chairman Aplin said during the commission work session that the buyer is intent on canceling the lease. Todd Interests did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s all hands on deck, it’s very important to us,” Aplin said.
“The irony here of this being our centennial-year celebration and losing one of our gem state parks, is just absolutely unacceptable to me. Everyone has my word that we will work as hard as we can, but we can only deal with the cards that we’ve been dealt.”
Rep. Ken King (R), chair of the Texas House of Representatives’ culture, recreation and tourism committee during the 2021-22 session, vowed to not let this park go away quietly.
“Texas Power and Light was a regulated utility. Vistra is now going to sell the property they’ve acquired since. They’re not a regulated utility… There’s almost $70 million of taxpayer-funded improvements on this property. If they were still a tax-regulated utility, that money would have to go back to the ratepayers. That’s not how this works, now. They’re going to make a huge profit at the expense of the state of Texas. I think it is categorically wrong, and I’m going to fight it the whole way,” he told the commission.
Losing a park like this to private development would be unprecedented. “To our knowledge, we have not closed any sites,” a TPWD spokesperson said.
Fairfield Lake State Park is in Freestone County, between Buffalo and Corsicana off I-45, so closer to Dallas than Houston. As the story notes, the TPWD didn’t have the money to afford the property when it came on the market, but after the passage of prop 5 in 2019, which allocated more funds to TPWD via sales taxes on various sporting goods, it could try again now, but it may be too late. I’d suggest the Lege get involved, but it may be too late for that as well. If that’s the case, the Lege could still pass a law to require some level of public access to this land and the lake, and could put restrictions on any sales like it in the future. There are ways to at least mitigate this and learn from the experience, so I hope they will do that. We’ll see.
(If you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard the name Arch “Beaver” Aplin before, he’s the co-founder of Buc-ee’s.)