Actually, we could have saved Fairfield State Park

Well, well, well.

State officials passed up an offer to save Fairfield Lake State Park this month, just days before the Texas parks department celebrated its centennial, according to newly uncovered text messages.

The 1,821-acre park sits on land the state leases at no cost from the energy company Vistra Corp., part of a larger tract that also includes the 2,400-acre lake and 3,204 acres along the northern shores. It will close permanently Tuesday. Vistra has agreed to sell it to Todd Interests, a Dallas developer.

Screenshots we obtained of a text conversation between Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Arch “Beaver” Aplin, Todd Interests founder Shawn Todd and Vistra CEO Jim Burke show that, even as state officials publicly treated the park’s sale as a triumph of developer interests over the common good, they inexplicably failed to take serious steps to buy most of the parkland. Todd, Aplin and a Vistra spokesperson all verified the authenticity of the messages.

In the texts, Todd offers to complete the purchase of the entire property and then sell the parkland to the state, minus what Todd called a “tiny” carve-out in the northern peninsula of the park, for $60 million. Todd would have retained water rights and restricted some boating activities.

The carve-out would have closed hiking trails but would not have disrupted campsites, picnic areas or boat ramps, Todd said. The precise size of the carve-out was never agreed upon. But apparently, it was still a deal-breaker for the state. In response to Todd’s offer, Aplin texted, “I just spoke with the Lt Gov and he reminded me I asked him and the leadership for the ok to buy it all, not the park minus.”

When Todd pressed for compromise, Aplin responded by emphasizing the importance of the northern peninsula because of its hiking trails. The deal fell through.

The texts also reveal that the state has never made a competitive offer to buy the land. The agreement under contract is for approximately $110 million, the texts say. The state’s best offer, which Aplin texted Feb. 2, was $60 million plus a tax incentive in the form of a conservation easement to Vistra. The offer to Todd was simply for him to walk away, expenses paid, out of “altruism.” Aplin said he later offered Todd a fee in the amount of 3% to 6% of the value of the deal.

The $60 million was for the entire property, not just parkland. Aplin told us he wanted to buy the lake and expand the park.

“TPWD can commit to a 60 MM deal with commission approval,” Aplin texted. “My concept was an altruistic approach for Todd’s and Vistra. I know you have a deal at 100+ MM. We can’t get there, hence my altruistic suggestion.”

Aplin offered other perks to sweeten the deal.

“Feb 8th Centennial celebration, 100 yrs of parks with Governor Abbott presenting. It’s a big deal,” Aplin texted. “We announce this gift, both of you present, with me and the Gov, on 8th at our biggest celebration ever.” He even offered naming rights.

It’s hard to estimate the size of the donation Aplin was soliciting here. From Vistra, it was $50 million minus the value of the tax incentive. From Todd, it was opportunity cost. Todd told us he expects to make hundreds of millions developing the site. The water rights alone are worth that much, he said. When we asked Aplin, founder of the Buc-ee’s convenience store chain, if he would walk away from that much money, he wouldn’t answer.


There’s another conundrum with the state’s handling of this deal. In 2018, Aplin said TPWD asked Vistra to sell only the park portion of the property. Vistra declined, a spokesperson confirmed. But this month, when Todd offered the park portion, state officials wanted to buy the whole thing, at half price.

When the whole property was for sale, the state only wanted part. When part was for sale, the state wanted the whole thing.

At one point, the parties discussed yet another option. Todd offered to walk away in exchange for $50 million and 250 acres, and let TPWD negotiate its own deal with Vistra. Aplin declined.

None of this answers the more frustrating question of why this issue was allowed to get out of hand. In 2019, the department’s then-Executive Director Carter Smith suggested the state’s plan was wishing and hoping.

“It would be our hope that we could continue to see that lease extended with the new buyer of that property so that the state park did not go away, but ultimately we’re going to be at the mercy of the new owner,” Smith said in a hearing.

See here and here for the background. This is on the DMN editorial page for some reason, but it doesn’t matter, the story is clear enough. I can’t tell if Aplin and the TPWD are being so erratic because they sincerely believe they are constrained by what the rest of state government will let them do, or if they just don’t have the processes and organization to figure out this admittedly complex but utterly solvable problem. All I can do at this point is shake my head.

As for what could be done now, leave it to Greg Abbott to do the barest minimum possible.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has offered support for preserving Fairfield Lake State Park, which is scheduled to close within days as a private developer moves forward with purchasing the land.


Abbott, in a Thursday interview with the Star-Telegram, didn’t specifically address the possibility of eminent domain. But he said he wants to see the park remain public.

“We’re working with Texas Parks and Wildlife on doing everything we can to preserve that park,” Abbott said.

I have no idea what that means. That story was from before the DMN’s editorial, so “doing everything we can” would have sounded different when he said it. I still think the odds of the Lege taking the park land back are very small, but maybe not zero. We’ll know in a few weeks if that or any other bill related to this is likely to go anywhere.

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7 Responses to Actually, we could have saved Fairfield State Park

  1. C.L. says:

    Never underestimate the ability of Abbott, Patrick, Paxton, Phelan, etc., to ‘F’ things up.

    Too bad Bettencourt doesn’t have this issue struck in his craw like it appears he does with supposed voting issues in Harris County.

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    I don’t understand why the government is not simply going to confiscate the land. Why pay for something that you can take.

  3. J says:

    Speaking of parks, I have recently toured some of the Bayou Greenways and can offer an update on wildflower and tree color. Many new trees have been planted and some of the banks of the bayous have been seeded with wildflowers, so you don’t have to go to Brenham to see some nice sights. It is early yet, but some places already have Bluebonnets in abundance.

    Buffalo Bayou from Shepherd to Sabine- Redbuds are lovely, some are past their prime. Wildflower plantings are only in spots, some bluebonnets out but not much to see yet.
    Buffalo Bayou from Sabine to downtown, no color.
    White Oak Bayou from Allen’s Landing to the MKT bridge- Bluebonnets are beginning, a few Indian Paintbrush and Indian Blanket blooms. There are a lot of grassy violet flowers I cannot identify.
    White Oak Bayou from the MKT bridge to the far western bridge- More to see here. The northern bank of the bayou has escaped relentless mowing and has the best beds of wildflowers. Right now some extensive beds of Bluebonnets with some violet flowers intermixed. A pretty bed of wildflowers now blooming at the shopping center where the Heights bike trail goes under Shepherd. Has Winecups, a personal favorite. West of Shepherd there is a nice bed of Bluebonnets with other blooms right before the bridge at the bayou.

    I think the best show will be in a week or two when the red and orange blooms are out but there is already something to see during the nice weekend ahead.

  4. Jason Hochman says:

    @J the wine cup and Indian blanket are my favorite wildflowers. There are wildflowers coming up all along the bike trails. As well, I have seen red bud trees blooming in yards. Like you said, no need to go out of town to see wildflowers.

  5. Jason Hochman says:

    @J, if you ride a bicycle on the trails, I just saw this, which might interest you, the Bike Houston first Sunday ride will ride to the rodeo, beginning at Market Square downtown. sounds fun, although it is early on Sunday morning.

  6. Ross says:

    Jason, what makes you think the state can just take property without paying for it?

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