Misti and I met through Instagram at the very start of the battle to save Fairfield Lake State Park. It was the end of February and I was at the rodeo cookoff when she messaged me to share her oped on the park closing. Over the last nine months she's been my go to for information on the status of the park along with her Facebook group Save Fairfield Lake State Park and Instagram profile by the same name. In this episode she shares what happened with the state park, the measures that we've gone through along with the state and where we are now, greatly needing the help of the general public.
Listen above or click the links below to listen to the Stronger Than podcast on other places...
Next Steps to Save Fairfield Lake State Park
1. Email or call Texas Parks and Wildlife to say you support them going through the appeal process: https://tpwd.texas.gov/business/feedback/webcomment/ or 512-389-4800
2. Email your or call your state representatives to support TPWD appealing the ED valuation in court: Visit https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home to get contact info for your representatives.
3. Email or call Senator Kolkhorst, who has been a proponent for investigating the EB-5 Visa Program and tell her you are concerned about the water rights and foreign investments into our state's infrastructure: https://senate.texas.gov/member.php?d=18 or call (512) 463-0118
4. Write a letter to the editor of the following publications about your concerns.
- Fort Worth Star Telegram: https://www.star-telegram.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/submit-letter
- Dallas Morning News: https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/2018/12/02/submit-a-letter-to-the-editor
- Houston Chronicle: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/submit/
- Austin American-Statesman: https://www.statesman.com/story/opinion/2020/12/10/submit-letter-austin-american-statesman/3878545001/
- Freestone County Times: 401 East Commerce, Fairfield, Texas 75840 Phone: 903-389-6397
Stronger Than Podcast
Season 1, Episode 5
Title: Stronger Than - Losing A Texas State Park - With Misti Little
So on this next episode of Stronger Than, it's a little bit different than what we've been talking about before. If you follow me on Instagram, if you read our blog, you know how much we love our state parks here in Texas, how much of an advocate I am, and I've got Misty with me today and she's been really instrumental in getting the word out about what's happening with Fairfield Lake State Park. She's like my go-to when I don't know what's happening. I'm like, give me more information Misty. And so I'm really excited to have her on the podcast today. I always knew this was a podcast I wanted to record, but I wanted it to be the one that said, look at all this that we went through and now we get to enjoy our state park again. And that's not really what's happening right now, but I am hopeful that this will help get us to that point.
Yes, I agree. Will do.
Misty, can you give us a little bit of the background of what's happened and how we got to where we are today, and then we'll get into a little bit of what's happening now?
Yes. So what happened, the basic basics are in 2018, Vistra Luminant, which is a energy company who owns the property of Fairfield Lake State Park, the Fairfield Lake. And once upon a time, the Big Brown Power Plant, which used to reside across the lake, the Big Brown Power Plant shut down. And the energy company decided they wanted to divest of their lands there. They had gone through bankruptcy in around 2016, and as these companies are want to do, they want to kind of get rid of things that they're not using. And so as different laws have changed, power plants have shut down around the country, energy things have changed, everything's shifting. So there was going to be a change. And so in 2018, the state Vista let the state know that they were looking to sell the property and they kind of told the state, Hey, let's not tell you all your constituents quite yet because we want to see how things are going to go. We're going to even see if we can even find a buyer. And then maybe after a few months we'll talk about it. We can put it out onto the public. While it did make it to the public, except it was an article here and there was never any real sense of urgency in the state, in Texas P arks and Wildlife in general, they usually have a really good working relationship with whomever they're leasing property from. They have state parks on, or
There's about 15 that are leased. Yeah, okay. I think that that's important for the public to know. And I think that's one of the things that's been really great is it's brought that to light and granted a lot of those, one of the other ones I've read is Vistra still, I think it's Sandhill Monaghan or I don't know what it's called.
Yeah. There it's, and then a lot of the other ones that I've read about are Army Corps of Engineers or different municipalities. But just wanted to throw that in there. This isn't the only park that the lands owned by someone else.
Correct. And so the one I do know that Vista still owned is Lake, Colorado City, and I do know the state is actually in negotiations to purchase that property. Oh,
Wow. I didn't know that.
They actually own it. Yeah, there was a commission hearing a few months ago. So they're trying to remedy some of this issue for other parks, and I don't think there's ever going to be an issue with the federal leases.
Yeah, I don't think so either.
So that's not really a problem. So this went on for years. Vista couldn't find buyer until 2022 with Todd Interest and Todd Interest came around and still all this was kept to the back burner of the public's knowledge until earlier this year when it became clear, we had the news article saying, well, the lease is going to end, we're going to close the park. And the uproar began, and this led us to where we are today, is trying to find a way to fight to save the state park. And I think so many of us are like, well, why didn't the state buy it? You got to go back and look at the funding for the last 30, 35 years, the legislature just was not providing money to purchase property. They have very small operating budget. I mean, it's still like over a million dollars, a hundred million dollars, but that's like to operate all the parks, pay personnel, that sort of thing. It's not to buy land and you need a lot more money to buy land.
And I did a lot of research about the history of the state parks for my book and is historically underfunded. I mean, even the grassroots efforts with Governor Neff to make them happen was completely based on donations. Legislature allowed them to have a parks board, but they weren't funded at all. There was zero. And that went on for years. And so it is kind of par the course.
Yes yes, It's institutional.
Yes, yes. It's something that's been ingrained, and unfortunately we've just gone with the flow because we're such a private property rights state people, we can't get past that hurdle. And it's been very difficult until this year with Proposition 14, thankfully. So we're making some headway. Unfortunately, I think the state park had promulgated a lot of that. I don't know if we'd have gotten that traction otherwise. And so the property closed in June. The new owner bought it from Vistra, and right after the state decided they were going to condemn or pursue imminent domain to take the property. And so that's been the hurdle, and it's a very slow process. We've all had this crash course in imminent domain law, and we're not lawyers reading the statutes, trying to understand reading blog posts from lawyers. And there's very specific steps that have to go through. And when you're dealing with the law, it takes time. You got to negotiate, send out. And then finally this week we made it to the point where we had the imminent domain, three person special commission who would determine what the valuation should be set at. And that's where things have kind of hit the fan even worse.
Yeah. Something else I read about too was that early on with Vistra, they didn't want to split up the land. They owned around 5,000 acres. The park was on about 1400 acres, almost 1500 acres, and TPWD was just like, we don't want to buy all 5,000 acres. So that's a lot. That's huge for our budget. So especially if you consider how underfunded they've been, I think when we started distributing all the sports equipment, sales tax back to the state parks, that's helped a lot. That's been a big bonus. So legislation is coming out where they're getting more funding and that's great, but we're kind of in this growth stage if you look at it as a business in itself.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that part of the process as far as eminent domain, the state made three offers, is that correct to him? The
State made well, they tried to make some offers before things closed just to get him to back out, basically to buy out his contract from Vista to say, Hey, you've put in all this work, you've done all this other groundwork to get this contract. We'll pay, I think it was $25 million, maybe 30 million, and that's just, you take that money and leave. And it looked like up until the last minute that was going to happen because come to find out, he was having trouble finding investing funding, investment funding for this. And so that was kind of like a side thing that happened before. But yes, they had to make two bonafide offers to him this summer, which he could accept or reject, which he rejected. And then that's when they had to go to court to actually file in court eminent domain. And that's labeled out in the statutes.
I do want to back up for a second. You said the state wanted to buy the state park, and Yes, that's true. When people say the state didn't do anything, the state asked, Hey, we want to just buy the state park. And Vista said, no, it's all or nothing. And so there were at least two other entities who were willing to let the state park stay if they purchased the rest of these entities, purchase the property. I don't know what those offers were to Vista, but Vista turned those people down too. So it's not like it was just the state trying to do this. The other people were shot down as well that were willing to help the state, whether setting up payments, the state was going to pay these people back, or it was just another lease situation. It was up in the air. So that's
Things have been stacked against the park for a while.
I didn't even know any of that. I really just had a conversation with someone two nights ago, and they were like, anybody could have stepped in. It's Texas. We are chock full of millionaires. It's good to know. People did try to step in. That's awesome.
Yeah. Yeah. There was one like a conservation group out of Nacodoches or Lufkin I believe, and then the other one was another developer. I don't know the name, have all sorts of speculation and ideas, but so we don't know. And that's the frustrating part and getting that out to the people. You keep seeing comments on social media or forums and you're like, if you knew the real story,
And that's kind of what we're here to talk about is the real story. I think so many of us who have been part of trying to save this park or have gotten into the nitty gritty and the dirty parts of it and the political business and the corporate greed stuff. I mean, if you get really deep into this, it's all in there. It all exists. But at the end of the day, I think the heart of it is that there was this really, really wonderful state park, great fishing space that's now no longer available to the public. And that's really what we're here to do is make that still happen. So what has happened with the eminent domain, they were supposed to have this meeting at another time, and then it got abruptly moved to Monday of this week, correct?
Yeah, it was supposed to happen on Tuesday. And my other compatriot and all this Sandy Emmons, she found out it was supposed to happen on Monday, unfortunately, to that area. So she's been able to attend meetings and go to a lot more things than I have because I'm three hours away from Fairfield. Well, it's probably two and a half. So she was unable to attend those meetings, but other people I know through all of this did. And so they had two days of where Todd Interest was able to present his case. The state was able to present their case. The state brought an appraisal, an appraiser. I know that Beaver Aplin was cross examined, several other parks, people were cross examined, and then Todd Interests did not bring an appraisal. Did not bring an appraiser. His basically his opinion of the value was what he told this commission.
And so the commission, and I've kind of learned a little bit more about this, Freestone County I guess has just kind of a regular pool of, I don't know, around 10 people or so that they usually pull for imminent domain cases. And so in the statutes, it reads like a disinterested landowner in whatever county in imminent domain case is going to be going through. And so I always assumed, and it may work like this in some counties, and it seems to be up to the judge in the county itself how this actually works, but I always thought it was just like, okay, well, you could just own a house in town and they could just, it's like getting called for a jury. Your name just shows up. That's how I thought it worked. Not in Freestone County, at least there's a regular pool of 10 people, and so they whittled it down to five and each side is able to dismiss one of them, and then that's how you end up with the three.
So they agreed on the three, two happen to be realtors and one was as a banker at a bank in town. Of course, when you see realtors, you're like, oh, all the warning bells are going off. I mean, I can understand why a realtor would be on an imminent domain commission because they should understand what the land value is wherever they're selling property. I could see how you would put them on your professional list of people to call. But in this situation, it's a very big warning bell. There's a lot at stake because if you have been, like you said, the nitty gritty details, if you haven't been following around to the detail that has not been covered in the news, the developer has bought a steer at the county fair and he's held barbecue on the county court steps. He's done a lot of persuading, if you will.
We could call it campaigning.
Yeah, there you go. Campaigning.
Campaigning is a good word. Yes,
There was anti eminent domain ads on the local country radio station. There's a lot of things happening. So if you had to have your head in the sand to not know what was going on in the county, so this week they had the two days presenting their cases of what they think the value should be, and then they came back on Wednesday morning with valuation of being $418.3 million. And so Mr. Todd had said that he thought it should be $475 million, and that was his opinion, but no appraisal. The state has said their value was $83 million, and I think we all expected the state to be fine with paying $103 million what they had offered him this summer and or $103 plus whatever costs he's already put into it. So I think we all accepted something that wasn't exactly on the appraisal side of what they had, but $418 million is pretty crazy.
And I mean, the research I did, which I don't know if we know the exact number, but that he paid roughly around $103 million for the property in June. I just think about it, and I know it's a different thing, but I think about at my home in Texas, and it's grossly increased in value over the last couple of years because of things, but for it to over quadruple in value in six months, that's unheard of. And so I mean, that number I was just like, which I think most of us who are trying to save this park felt the same way. Shocking would be the word for me.
Yeah, yeah. It's a number that they knew would prevent the state. The state doesn't have that money, and they're not going to spend half of prop 14 just to buy 5,000 acres.
Right, exactly. Can you tell us a little bit more, because there's been touches on this more recently in the news that I've read, but a little bit more about the water rights. It seems to be a very big gray area.
So I have not checked recently what TCEQ has a water permitted for, but as of last spring, because this was a topic that came up in some of the legislative hearings with the committees as this original representative or who represents Freestone County, she had originally started with an imminent domain bill, and that got changed to a water rights kind of bill at the last minute. And so as it went through the house just fine passed the house floor, then it made to the Senate committee and it died in the Senate committee. So both times the TCEQ came to talk about the water permit and how that could be changed, and it is kind of hard to change a water usage permit. And so previously that permit was for, had to be used for cooling the big brown power plant. Of course, I believe even the spring in spring of 2022, I think RA and or possibly Todd interests started trying to look into how to change that.
That's been, I think, an ongoing thing. I don't know if that has changed, but I think apparently it's kind of difficult to change, but it's not just about the lake, it's also about the groundwater. And we had been talking about this all summer. It's also about the groundwater. He wants to drill deep water wells into the aquifer to pull water from that to probably sell to municipalities. And then he came out on Tuesday and kind of said, yeah, I want to have seven. There's two out there already. I want to mill five more. And so it has a lot of implications to the water in Freestone County for nearby residents too. If you have a well, and you may have to be free drilling your well in five, 10 years because it's been sucked dry at a certain depth. Yeah, that's a little more of a fuzzy grace subject for me because there's a lot of different working parts and laws regarding water rights in the state that get very,
Yeah, historically there's been some crazy, I mean, there was a Supreme Court case, I think it was last year or the year before with Texas and water rights. So I think it's interesting that we're seeing more and more of that, especially when we talk about conservation efforts and use of water and all these different things and keeping our water supplies clean. And I think just totally a side note, I think we'll probably see more and more court cases about water rights going forward. And I think what happens in this, if that's something that's pursued, will set a precedent I think, in the state. And that's something worth watching for those who are interested in nerdy things like that.
Well, I just think it goes to say that I see people in Austin talking about wells going dry in Williamson County, and they're having to have water shipped into their city because of issues. We have just so much growth in all of our cities in Houston. We rely a little bit differently on some of, we suck too much groundwater out of Houston. We start subsiding and having issues with that. So they've learned that lesson a few times over. But places like Dallas-Fort Worth, they want to build more and more lakes up there because there's so much more water usage. And it's not necessarily, it's not just drinking water. We're watering our lawns a lot. There's a lot of different things. And so I understand why our cities are growing. We need more water. There's more people, but we need to be thinking a little about conservation,
Really. Yeah, agreed. I totally agree. And I mean, I don't have the answer to what that looks like. What does conservation look like? I mean, when we were kids, I remember there being PSAs and I'd be like, turn the water off when you brush your teeth. And that's ingrained in my brain even today. But I think it's going to take a little bit more than that at the end of the day. It's going to take a lot of changing the way we do things, how we, the sod we put in our yards and all of those kinds of things too. Anyways, that's a whole other podcast,
I think. Yeah. Yes.
So at this point, we're kind of at a stalemate. If TPWD had 418 million to just throw at this, and that was like a drop in the bucket, I'm sure that they would, but they don't. And so what is next steps? Is this over? Do we keep, what do we do?
So they have 20 days to appeal. And so the 20 days, I think from the first Monday after the decision, so we have three weeks to get this done. And so what we'd really need is for people to put pressure on Texas Parks and Wildlife, your representatives, to go and appeal this decision. Unfortunately, the developer, he still owns the property. He can still keep clearing. He can build a house out there if he wants, whatever. So that's going to still keep happening, and that's just unfortunately how it goes. Now, if this had gone a little bit better this week, the state, and they said, okay, 103 million, the state could have whatever, wired the money over to them and taken property, taken hold of the property right then and there, it'd been done deal perfect. But that's not what happened. So we need to appeal. I personally think they need to appeal just because this kind of valuation just sets a precedent overall for future imminent domain cases, not just in the state, but nationwide.
So imminent domain, it's a touchy subject. I think most of us generally see where it can be abused by agencies and other entities like pipeline companies, but there's a time and a place and people, for better or for worse, a lot of our national parks and land were created through eminent domain. So there's a lot of, like I said, good and bad things about that as well. But we need to look at that fact is that we wouldn't have some of these places if we hadn't done that. And this is a little bit of a different situation
As well. I think it's important to note that TPWD just passed their own statute. I read about this recently that says when they use eminent domain for Parkland, it's not going to be like Farmer John's ranch. They're not going to go take people's ranches. They're not going to go take people's personal homes. That's not what eminent domain for parks is about. I think it's very specifically this kind of situation.
And to make that note, the last time eminent domain was used for a park was the Franklin Mountain State Park back in late, the 1979, 1980. And it was honestly kind of a similar situation. A developer wanted to build a big resort on top of a mountain. The locals in El Paso were like, hell no. Let's make a coalition. The state cast stepped in. The difference was the legislature was actually behind it at the time. I listened to some of the Senate hearings on that, which is kind of fun because you get to hear really cool old Texas accents. I love it. And they're just like, yep, we approve. There was no debate. It was just like a done deal. And of course, now 40 years later, it's a little more contentious, a lot harder to deal with. So it's an incredibly rare thing to be doing in Texas anyway for Parkland.
Yeah, it's crazy. And it's been a wild ride to watch all this unfold. And like I said before, it's just brought to light the parks and how important they are. And I've written so many different articles for different publications about this specific thing at different stages of it, which has been interesting to look back and be like, oh yeah, look, we thought we'd just get it all done with this bill. Yeah.
Oh, how naive.
I know. So pressuring them to appeal is the big thing right now. What else can people do? Like the everyday person?
Yeah, call your representative. I would also write to letters to your editor in the newspapers, especially the Dallas Morning News, four Star Telegram. Both of them have been mostly on the side of the developer this whole time, especially the Dallas Morning News. Let them know that you disagree with them. I've tried to write Op-Eds no's gotten taken, but I did write a letter to the editor once, and I got picked up at the Dallas Morning News, so that was good. But yeah, just writing that, talking to your friends and family. If you see any bad information online, counter it with actual information. Direct people to me in the Save Fairfield Lake State Park Facebook group if you want. We have a lot of information there to sift through it sometimes. But yeah, really it's just calling. And honestly, you should call your representatives in Parks and Wildlife once a week, twice a week for the next couple of weeks.
Yeah, my representative, the guy who answers the phone, he's like, oh, it's you.
That's how often I'm calling. But no, and I think there's so many people that aren't calling their representatives and they're nervous or worried or whatever, and I've said this on my social media a hundred times, they're just people answering the phones. And their job is to listen to constituents. The people that are representatives are representing, that's your voice, and if you don't tell them how you feel about something, they're going to vote however they want to vote. That's what's so important about this, that is why we have the processes that we have in Texas and in our country, and you have to call, you have to email, you have to tell them how you feel about stuff. And the people that answer the phones are just the people that answer the phones. I've talked to so many different ones. They're so nice. They're always excited to hear from you, even if the person that they're working for is staunchly against whatever you're calling them about, they still are appreciative of the feedback.
And personal stories about the park. Tell 'em that's their job. Their job is to listen to you.
So we have a huge heart for Fairfield Lake State Park. It's one of my favorites. It's the first time I took my paddleboard out. It's the first place we camped after our house fire. We lost all of our gear. There's actually anybody listening who's ever heard The Tent That Ate My Family, it's a children's book that I'm working on illustrating. My mom wrote it, but it's a story about being at Fairfield Lake State Park, and it's just a beautiful, beautiful place. The lake was incredible. Anglers love fishing there. Hikes were wonderful. There were some rare prairies. Yes,
There were. And sadly, and that's what we're seeing happening is the developer is developing the land. They're destroying prairies. They're destroying a lot of really incredible spaces and ecosystems. And that's heartbreaking, I think, for everybody who loved the park, but we're still hopeful that it'll be saved. Yes,
It'll be a different park. They are building different roads out there. If this gets settled for some reason in the next three to six months, you're not going to be in that park next year. It's going to be five years from now, and it'll look a lot different.
It will. But I'm still hopeful. I think we all who have kind of been leading the charge on saving it, or at least having our toe dipped in the waters of saving it, are still very hopeful. Even with this decision, the pandemic brought a lot of people to the state parks. We saw a huge increase in volume, which has been awful for those of us who are used to being able to just book a camping space that weekend. We have to actually think ahead. But as far as the state parks go, I think it's been really, really great. I wrote a book called the Texas State Park Journal. It's got a lot of information about the parks, but it's got a page for each park with blank pages for future parks. And in talking to people about it, I was at an author event the other night, and it was just really cool to talk to families.
I didn't realize how much of talking about this book would be also me advocating for the parks. It was a family event. And a dad came up and I was like, do you guys go to the state parks? He's like, I used to go when I was a kid growing up, but I haven't been. And he had three daughters. And I was like, why haven't you taken them? And he's like, I don't know. Why haven't I? And it was just like this aha moment of I should be doing this.
And I talk about in the end of the book, the writing portion of the book, that the future of the Texas state parks is up to us. And it truly is. It's up to the people of Texas, not our legislation, not the government. It's up to the people. And that's going and advocating for them, that's visiting them, that's taking care of them, picking up trash on trails. That's all of it. And I think that that's so important here. And that's what this whole situation with Fairfield has brought to light is that it's our charge, it's our mission. So any final thoughts, anything else people can do to help?
Yeah, so looking back, you're saying it's our parks, it's our voice. And I have never gotten this involved in any kind of activism before. I've filled out forms, and yes, I've called representatives, but I've never been an activist in this kind of a way. And that word gets tossed around as a negative word, but it's not. You're advocating for something you love and something that should be protected. It's a marathon, it's not a sprint. And it's hard. You get burnt out, but it's worth it because at least you tried and you know what you did to try. And I could have backed out, other people involved could have backed out. We could have just let the state lead this. And I think a lot of organizations, environmental organizations in the state who should have said things early on and been vocal just didn't. And they just let the state do it. And I think that's been a detriment, and we all should have been way more vocal than it has been. And just know that your voice matters, and if you feel very concerned about anything for state parks or Texas environment, just really just get involved and find a way that suits your personality to be active and advocate for that thing.
I love that. Absolutely. Misty, thank you so much for all the work you've done about getting the word out. I mean, it's just been incredible to have you as a resource for me, and I feel like I'm just tapping in every once in while, then I tap out because life is busy, but you've just been such a resource and you've put a lot of your energy and your time and your effort into this, and I want to thank you. Whatever happens with the park, you've done a really good thing. So thank you for doing that.
Thank you. Well, we need everybody, and it's really great to have y'all as a resource too, because I know a lot of people and you doing such great work with the hiking group. Thank you. So we need everybody we can get.
Absolutely. Okay. Thank you so much. Let go save Fairfield Lake State Park.
If you're looking for resources on how to find out who represents you or how to contact Texas Parks and Wildlife, feel free to visit our website. It's stronger than fire.com/blog, and I will have all the resources there for you.
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