The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department voted unanimously to use eminent domain to seize a 5,000-acre property south of Dallas that included Fairfield Lake State Park on Saturday, citing the need to preserve a state park enjoyed by thousands of Texans.
After months of stalled legislative efforts and failed negotiations to secure the park, the state opted to seize the land from Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, who purchased the property in February for $110.5 million. Commissioners were not eager to use the power of eminent domain to condemn the property, but the agency ultimately decided this instance was an exceptional case of public interest.
“I think we have a clear duty to act for the greater good for all Texans. While we have the power of eminent domain, that power should be used sparingly and reluctantly. In fact it’s been nearly four decades since we’ve last used it,” said Jeffery Hildebrand, a Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner, just before the commission voted to condemn the property.
Because the property serves a public purpose as a park, eminent domain experts say Texas can seize the private land, even if the developer doesn’t want to sell.
Next, the state will notify Todd of the condemnation decision and make an offer for the property. The state and the developer will negotiate over how much Texas will pay for the almost 5,000 acres. If they do not reach an agreement, the issue can end up in court.
During Saturday’s public meeting, residents of Freestone County, environmental advocates and lawmakers testified in favor of condemnation to save a critical public asset for future Texans. Texas State Parks Division Director Rodney Franklin noted that 80% of the public comments the agency received ahead of the decision were in support of using eminent domain to save the park.
Negotiations between the developer and the state have not been successful. Todd Interests declined the agency’s $25 million offer for the whole property, which prompted the TPWD to pursue the eminent domain and condemnation option as a last ditch effort to keep the property in the public’s hands.
Last month TPWD commissioners gave the agency’s executive director the freedom to take “all necessary steps” to acquire the park. While all of those who spoke on Saturday were in favor of saving the park, many lamented that eminent domain was the vehicle to achieve that end goal.
“We do regret that this matter has come to this point and there was not the ability to resolve this issue before these steps were necessary,” said Kevin Good, the president of Texans for State Parks. “The agency should be proactive about trying to avoid these situations in the future.”
Todd maintained that he has engaged in “good faith conversations” with Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chair Arch “Beaver” Aplin III about the property since September 2022.
“The State of Texas, however, has spent the last eight months working to derail our transaction and diminish our transactional rights,” Todd said in a June letter to the Parks and Wildlife Commission.
The letter said the company has begun executing its development plan and investing millions of dollars in related contracts.
While several steps in the condemnation process remain, including an independent review of the property’s value, it’s not clear when the park could reopen.
In an interview earlier this year, Austin attorney Luke Ellis said the state has the legal right to take land from a private property owner through eminent domain if the land is for public use and they pay “just compensation” to the owner.
“The bigger question that I think will exist in this case is, what is the correct amount of just compensation owed to the property owner that results from the taking?” he said. “I suspect that could be an issue that could be hotly disputed.”
Todd Interests has offered to sell part of the parkland back, which the state has declined in favor of getting the whole thing. That $25 million offer is clearly too low, especially if Todd has been spending money in preparation for construction. I have no idea what the final price will be, but I’ll bet the over on that one. The Chron has more.