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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas House of Representatives has passed a bill in an attempt to save a popular state park from permanent closure and development into a private community. The measure now moves to the state Senate.
Fairfield Lake State Park, about 70 miles east of Waco, was closed to the public at the end of February, after almost 50 years in operation. It has since temporarily reopened but is slated for permanent closure later this summer.
The House approved House Bill 4757 Friday by a vote of 131-8, a show of bipartisan support.
The bill would require the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to approve any application for new or amended water rights related to Fairfield Lake, as well as adjoining Big Brown Creek. Parks and Wildlife officials had previously raised concerns about how the developer planned to use the water.
Right now, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for evaluating and approving applications to change water permits. If signed into law, the bill would mean changes to the permits would have to be approved by Parks and Wildlife in addition to the TCEQ.
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.
The water permit for the lake is currently for industrial use. Vistra says it has not used the water since 2018, when the power plant closed. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Chairman Arch ‘Beaver’ Aplin previously told lawmakers that Todd Interests wants to change the water permit from industrial to consumptive, residential and recreational, and send thousands of acre-feet to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.
“They want to be able to move 14,000 acre-feet, which is over a third of the water at the conservation pool level,” Aplin told lawmakers in a March 9 committee hearing. “The lake will not be the lake as we know it when you stick a straw in it and take a third of the water out of the lake. It just won’t.”
Shawn Todd, CEO of Todd Interests, pushed back in a statement provided to KXAN. “The State had multiple opportunities over the last four years to lawfully purchase the land under Fairfield [Lake] State Park,” Todd said, alluding to months of negotiations which ultimately failed. “Taxpayers would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars if Texas Parks and Wildlife had acted responsibly.”
“Today, the same politicos who failed the State are now resorting to brazen and surreptitious actions to cover up their inactivity by abusing governmental powers to unlawfully take water and property rights from a Texas landowner,” Todd said. “These same politicos hypocritically proclaim they are pro-business and strong private property rights advocates. These undemocratic actions should be alarming to any Texas landowner or voter. The proposed bill is a direct attack on private property rights and, if enacted, will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.”
Environmental groups, however, celebrated Friday’s passage of the bill through the House.
“What a great day for state parks in Texas,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. “HB 4757 will hopefully bring Todd Interests to the negotiating table so the state can fairly purchase the land on which Fairfield Lake State Park sits and keep it open to the public forever.”
The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee in the state Senate.