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Fairfield Lake State Park’s possible closure to public ‘unacceptable,’ parks chief says

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Fairfield Lake State Park has a 2,200-acre lake and miles of hiking, biking and horseback trails.

Fairfield Lake State Park isn’t the biggest property in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s portfolio. But there’s still plenty to see and do at the park, which is about a two-hour drive south from Dallas. It’s dominated by a 2,200-acre lake and also has miles of hiking, biking and horseback trails.

The park may not be open to the public for long, though, according to a report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. For decades, the property’s been leased to the state by an energy company called Vistra Corp. Vistra recently agreed to sell the property to a private buyer, which may end the lease with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

David Yoskowitz, executive director of TPWD, spoke to Texas Standard about the department’s attempts to maintain access for the public.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: We should note that Fairfield Lake State Park sits on land that is owned by a power company if I’m not mistaken, but a power plant shut down in 2018. You weren’t with the department then, I assume. But it’s your understanding that, what – Texas Parks and Wildlife could have purchased the property then? Or not?

David Yoskowitz: Well, let me start off by saying that, you know, this is a gem of a state park, which you’ve talked about. And to potentially lose this in the centennial year of our state parks is just unacceptable. And this park property did come up for sale, discussions of that in 2018 with the department. But the challenge was that the department didn’t have the resources to go ahead and buy the whole thing at that time. We talked to the seller, Luminant Vistra, about carving out the park parcel, but they were interested in only selling the whole thing. So this is where we’re at today, unfortunately, is that we’re in threat of losing a gem of a park in a time that we need to be adding more state parks.

So, someone else is purchasing the property? Is that what’s happening here, why the change is coming about? 

That’s correct. There is currently a contract, and the individual buyer wishes to turn this into a private development with, you know, destination homes for second-home buyers.

Is there any sign or any evidence that perhaps the purchaser doesn’t want to go through with this? What do you know about the purchaser that you can share? 

Well, what I can share is that Beaver Aplin, chairman of the Parks and Wildlife Commission, is in really great discussions with the purchaser – not as much with the seller at this point, because it is under contract – and really trying to figure out a path forward. The purchaser seems amenable to some movement on that, and we hope something happens. Once again, 82,000 visitors a year go to this small 1,800-acre state park. You know, we have family reunions and weddings. I mean, the fishing is incredible at this little 2,200-acre lake. And so we’re trying to make things happen. We’re hopeful, but time is running out, and we’re going to have to really move on this quickly.

How many other state parks are leased under these sorts of arrangements or something similar? 

We do have other leases, but those leases are with a government entity, such as the Corps of Engineers, for example. So those leases are definitely more secure for the long run because their mission aligns with the department’s mission. This one in particular was with a private sector firm no longer using the lake to generate power to cool the power-generating plant. And so now they’re wanting to sell the whole property. And that’s the bind that we find ourselves in here.

Are there still options available that could keep the park open to the public? 

I think the best option is really for the department to be able to purchase the 1,800 acres and have that in whole for, you know, the next generation of Texans that are looking for recreational opportunities. And so I think that’s the goal of the department and that’s the goal of Chairman Appel in his conversations. And I will say, you know, the state Legislature, we’ve socialized this with them and they are very strongly behind keeping this state park.

There’s been an investment, I would imagine, over the years in this property – I mean, trying to make it into the state park that it currently is today. Would you just lose all of that, or what? 

Well, yeah, we’ve invested over $70 million over the years in improvements to, you know, really create a great experience for our visitors. And so some of that we might be able to take with us. But really most of it we won’t because it’s roads and buildings and so forth, and that’ll be an impact to the department and to the state to be able to lose those assets. But the biggest loss would be the park itself.

Do you have a timeline on this or something you’re sort of looking at as a ‘got to get this done by this particular date’ or it’s it gone?

There’s not a firm date at this point, but there is a lot of movement right now because we know it needs to happen soon. I mean, we’re talking weeks and not months.

Is there any potential eminent domain issue here? I mean, is that a way to work around a situation like this where you have a park that’s been established, a longstanding lease, people who count on the park and obviously an asset to the state in that regard? 

You know, as a state agency, we do have that authority. But the commission and the staff at the department is very careful about using that. In fact, we’ve only really used it to clean up some property issues around existing state parks. So we’re very careful in wanting to use that option. We really want to work with the seller and the buyer to figure out how we can purchase the park and additional acres outright.

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