AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some state senators are raising concerns that a bill intended to save a state park from permanent closure and development could open Texas up to possible litigation.
The House approved House Bill 4757 last month in an attempt to stop development on the land currently occupied by Fairfield Lake State Park.
The park, about 70 miles east of Waco, closed to the public at end of February after almost 50 years in operation. It has since temporarily reopened but is slated for permanent closure later this summer.
The land in question is not owned by the state, but is instead leased from Vistra Energy, which formerly operated a power plant near the park. Vistra is in contract to sell the land to Todd Interests, a Dallas-based developer, which plans to turn the site into an exclusive gated community with multi-million dollar homes and a private golf course.
HB 4757 would require the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to approve any application for new or amended water rights related to Fairfield Lake. Parks and Wildlife officials had previously raised concerns about how the developer planned to send thousands of acre-feet of water to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
Right now, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for evaluating and approving applications to change water permits.
In a Monday hearing of the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, submitted a replacement bill that would apply statewide, not just to Fairfield Lake.
“If it’s good for one, it’s good for all,” Perry said. “If it’s not good for one, it’s not good for all.”
Lawmakers previously wanted to use eminent domain to acquire the land. Rep. Angelia Orr, whose district includes the park, filed that legislation, before replacing it with HB 4757.
“I understand that many of my colleagues have reservations about using eminent domain for this purpose, which is why it is not included in the substitute language,” Orr said in a March hearing. “Like my colleagues, I too am a supporter of property rights, and I believe that the park can still be saved without that language included.”
But some senators said the new bill would infringe on the property rights of Todd Interests, who are under contract to take over the land on June 13.
“I want the otters and the nutria to have a place to go,” said Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas. “But I think that maybe government imposing upon private property rights is the wrong way for us to go about preserving the environment.”
An attorney representing Todd Interests echoed that sentiment in Monday’s hearing, saying if the bill passes, the state would be “vulnerable” to litigation.
CEO Shawn Todd told senators Monday he plans to develop “less than 10%” of the 5,000-acre property.
“We care about the environment… the species, the flora, the fauna. That’s why we’re doing a very low-density development,” Todd said. “We’re conservationists and we’re preservationists, but we’re also entrepreneurs.”
Todd entered into a contract with Vistra in April 2022, after the property had been publicly listed for sale for months.
“[The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department] had a right to purchase that property,” Todd said. “They did not compete in the open bidding process.”
Lawmakers previously heard how negotiations between TPWD, Vistra and Todd for the state to acquire the land broke down.
“As a taxpayer, I’m frankly disgusted that Parks and Wildlife could not figure out over multiple years how to purchase a piece of property,” Todd said Monday.
The bill was left pending in the Senate committee for now.
“This has obviously got some emotion attached to it,” Perry said. “The state and interested parties find themselves in a position nobody wants to be in a lot of times in this legislature. This is one of those. I suspect there’ll be litigation down the road.”