“We’ve come to say goodbye”: Visitors at Fairfield Lake State Park on last day

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Posted at 4:05 PM, Feb 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-28 17:05:23-05

FAIRFIELD LAKE STATE PARK — Mari Null pulled up to the window at the headquarters of Fairfield Lake State Park on Monday to buy entry tickets for perhaps the last time. Null was among a steady stream of visitors for the park’s final day — unless the state somehow finds a way to acquire the tree-covered land it sits on.

Assistant Manager Beth Buck greeted her.

“We’re very sad,” said Null, who’s been coming here since before her now-grown kids were born. “We’re very, very sad.”

The sunny, crisp day brought a stream of similar sentiment from 164 campers who had stayed overnight and 295 other visitors who lamented plans for the park — which has endured for decades on leased land near Interstate 45 about 100 miles south of Dallas — to be turned into a residential neighborhood.

Some had never been here before and wanted to see it while they could; others said farewell to a familiar place.

Park visitors wait to pay their entrance fee to Fairfield Lake State Park in Fairfield on its closing day Monday. The company that owns the land the park sits on decided to sell it and end the state's lease — and the state didn't bid on the property because it wanted to buy only the portion with the park.

“We’ve come to say goodbye,” said Dawn Hayes, who was visiting with her husband, Chuck, both in their mid-70s. They considered it one of the best parks they’d visited.

Many held onto optimism. Mary Navarro, 43, watched as four of her kids searched for shells on the lakeshore and said she would be praying. Park volunteer Donna Pettigrew, 76, cleaned the bathroom and said she was keeping her fingers crossed. Park staff encouraged visitors to contact their legislators.

“We have some hope,” Buck told Null.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has managed the park for nearly 50 years on land leased for free from the energy company Vistra Corp. and its predecessor businesses. The park borders a portion of a large lake created as a water source for the coal plant that operated on the lake’s opposite side before it was closed in 2018 and demolished — part of a shift toward cleaner-burning and cheaper fuel sources like natural gas.

From then on, TPWD staff knew they could lose the property. Vistra, which has similar lease agreements with the state for two other parks — one that was partially deeded to the state near a coal plant and another near a gas plant — told the state when the plant closed that it planned to sell the 5,000-acre property and would give the state a chance to buy it.

TWPD says it wanted to buy only the portion of the property that included the park and the company didn’t want to sell it in parts. The state never submitted a bid.

Finally, on Feb. 13, park officials received the dreaded notice: Their lease was being terminated. A real estate developer agreed to buy the property and planned to build expensive residences and a golf course there, according to news reports. The notice gave Parks and Wildlife 120 days to vacate the land.

Since the news broke, state officials have said they are still trying to save it. State Rep. Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, whose district includes the park, filed a bill earlier this month that would allow Texas Parks and Wildlife to use eminent domain to seize the park’s land.

During a committee hearing Monday at the state Capitol, Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chair Arch “Beaver” Aplin III told legislators the state is willing to buy the entire property.

But the developer, Todd Interests, is already under contract to buy it and doesn’t want to walk away from its deal for free. Todd Interests wants $50 million to give up its buying rights, Aplin said.

“We intend to close on the property and move forward,” Blake Beckham, an attorney for Todd Interests, said at the hearing.

The lease termination notice came as a gut-punch, said Daniel Stauffer, 35, the park superintendent, and to close the park Monday was heartbreaking.

People celebrated birthdays and got married there. Parents brought kids to teach them about the outdoors. They searched for birds, biked the Dockery Trail and spotted coots from the lakeside nature loop.

Around the lake, which anglers prize for its bass fishing, visitors could see bald eagles, river otters and beavers.

At Christmastime every year, campers decorated their campsites and Santa stopped by.

“You really are in a natural space, which is as it should be,” said Stauffer, who lives on the property and relishes the quiet. “We get to share that with everybody who comes through the front gate.”

More than 80,000 people visited last year, according to TWPD.

The tree-covered park is full of unexpected joys. There’s a tree with its long roots exposed. And there’s a buck that Kyle Ware, the state park police officer who also lives on the property, recognizes by his antlers. On Monday, Ware spotted the creature and whistled hello.

“This here gets you in nature,” Ware said, watching as people fished. “It’s just the real deal.”

Even in its final hours, people were making memories: A 41-year-old woman who visited the park growing up came from Dallas to car camp on Sunday for the first time. A 29-year-old father who remembered seeing his first bald eagle there spent the night with his wife and three kids, leaving at 2:30 a.m. to make it to work hauling trees for a tree farm.

A 70-year-old amateur radio operator drove down from north of Dallas to communicate with other radio operators via Morse code from a lakeside picnic table.

“Man, I hate to see this place close,” 69-year-old Gene Moore, a retired automotive industry technician and service adviser who drove 90 miles in his Winnebago Ekko to be there, told Stauffer, the superintendent.

“We do too,” Stauffer said.

That night, after making the rounds to be sure no one was left, Stauffer closed a new set of gates. Under the moonlight and stars, an LED sign blared the news: “STATE PARK CLOSED.”

Erin Douglas and Alejandra Martinez contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Texas Parks And Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/28/texas-fairfield-lake-state-park-closed/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

For decades the park has sat on leased land that the owner recently decided to sell. As the staff closed the gates Monday night for the last time, visitors and staff held out hope that the state could find a way to save the park.

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