Lawsuit ends in loss of Lake Texoma State Park land

By Stephen Willis - Guest columnist

The state and Pointe Vista’s joint PR campaign served them well for almost ten years. Every public relations event or news release was designed to build a hopeful and positive image.

Behind the recent news of a new hotel on Lake Texoma lies a secret deal to abandon our park. The Commissioners of the Land Office (CLO) voted on May 19 to approve land transactions they made in Marshall County on May 12. This appears to violate the state Open Meetings Act. It was the final act in a seventeen year power play to take Lake Texoma State Park land.

In the beginning it was all federal land.

In 1999, the Water Resources Development Act authorized the federal land transfer of 1580 acres of Lake Texoma State Park and undeveloped shoreline property south of the park. It required state compliance with all federal laws. The state complied with none.

In 2004, the CLO sponsored the “Lake Texoma Redevelopment.” CLO secretary, Clifton Scott, promised a “revitalized Lake Texoma State Park,” with expanded public recreation and commercial development around the Chickasaw Point Golf Course.

CLO director of real estate, Keith Kuhlman, came to Marshall County to promote the project. He said they would lease the land with the golf courses and hotels to “maximize the returns on the state’s investment.” He spoke to area residents and business owners who were fearful of the proposed “public / private partnership” – and for good reason.

In 2005, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service learned about the CLO’s pending sale of the park land. They asked the Corps to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the 564 acre land transfer. The Corps refused. Instead, they completed a cheaper Environmental Assessment which found “no significant” environmental impacts. This was the larger part of 758 acres required for the redevelopment. The state tourism department provided the additional land.

In 2007, McAfee & Taft attorneys wrote the “Pointe Vista Purchase Agreements.” Also that year, Scott Fischer repeatedly assured the media that the LTSP golf course would remain open after they bought Area B, south of US Hwy 70.

In 2008, Area A land north of Hwy 70 was sold to Pointe Vista. They also bought Area B. Fischer immediately announced plans to close the golf course and demolish the old lodge. Pointe Vista agreed to construct a four star hotel, convention center and associated housing. In exchange, they were allowed to purchase 758 acres of Lake Texoma State Park.

The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) also worked with the CLO, and Pointe Vista. In June they signed a third, “secret contract,” to sell Pointe Vista another 1,022 acres of federal land which was not theirs to sell. It was, and still is, federal land. CLO general counsel Perry Kaufman said they already have the 758 acres they need. He said, “If they want more land, that’s between them and Tourism. We’ve done our part.” Area C included all of the state park campgrounds and additional undeveloped shoreline acreage south of the park (Area C).

Then came the federal environmental study.

Early 2009, Corps environmental officer Stephen Nolen ordered a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the proposed Area C land transfer to the state. According to Ken Shingleton, in Nolen’s office, the EIS was required because they didn’t complete one on Areas A & B. We won the right to a comprehensive environmental review of the 3,000 acre development, for the first time.

From September, 2009 through early 2012, Pointe Vista used the Area C federal environmental study as a public relations tool. Then they refused to pay the estimated $2 million required for the study. They fought with Tourism over who was to pay for it. In 2012, Pointe Vista’s Ryan Chapman accused the Corp of Engineers of dragging their feet on the study. I called Ed Rossman at the Corps Tulsa office. He said “it was put on hold by Pointe Vista and Tourism last year. They never provided the funding for the draft EIS. So, it was never contracted.” Pointe Vista and Tourism abandoned the EIS in 2011 without informing the public.

In early 2012, Governor Fallin’s tourism director, Deby Snodgrass, advised Pointe Vista to do something, like “tear down some of the old state park cabins.” This, she said, would demonstrate that the project was moving forward. Pointe Vista accepted her advice. They demolished two dozen state park cabins along the shoreline south of the former park lodge. Once again, Pointe Vista received positive media coverage.

As time dragged on, it became clear that Pointe Vista would fail to meet their contract deadline for their four star hotel. They hadn’t even broken ground. CLO secretary Harry Birdwell assumed a “get tough” posture, threatening to sue Pointe Vista.

Then came the state’s lawsuit against Pointe Vista Development.

In January, 2014, the “CLO v Pointe Vista” breach of contract lawsuit was filed in Oklahoma County Court. Their purpose: to “move the project forward,” or cancel the 2008 land deals and take back the park land. Nowhere did they say they wanted to relieve Pointe Vista from their 2008 Purchase Agreement contracts, or let them keep over 700 acres of the park land.

This was the final stage of the CLO / Pointe Vista joint PR campaign. They used their lawsuit as a means to get to the Mediation and give Pointe Vista just about everything they wanted. The land commission and Pointe Vista were cooperating all along.

On May 16, 2014, Pointe Vista filed a Motion to Dismiss the CLO lawsuit. The judge denied their motion. He ordered both parties to create a court Hearing Schedule, and to hold the first hearing within two weeks. Ten months later, the “opposing” parties file their Scheduling Order for the law suit and trial.

On March 9, 2015, Judge Stuart ordered the parties to begin Mediation. “Parties shall select and contact a mediator within 5 days. Mediation shall be completed within 45 days of the date of this order.” The CLO abandoned their lawsuit. Secretary Harry Birdwell appointed himself the private mediator.

Six months later, on September 16, 2015, Governor Fallin announced, “Settlement Reached in Stalled Lake Texoma Development.” Two days later, Fallin’s communication director said they have yet to produce a written settlement agreement. He said the agreement is approved by both sides “in principal” but has not been completed or submitted to the court. “We will make it available as soon as it is finalized.” (The Oklahoman, 9/18/2015). That never happened, and it was soon forgotten.

Eight months later, on May 12, the CLO processed terms of an unwritten, unsigned and unapproved Settlement Agreement at the Marshall County Clerks office. On May 19, they voted to approve those actions. That included repurchasing just 50 acres of the original 758 acres sold to Pointe Vista. They abandoned the lawsuit and over 700 acres of the park. Pointe Vista submitted a joint motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Judge Stuart approved the motion, and dismissed the suit. In the news, it was all about the new hotel, and nothing about the abandoned park land.

The CLO and Pointe Vista avoided public scrutiny at every turn. They used the environmental study on Area C to mislead the public for over two and a half years before it was abandoned. They demolished over $1.5 million worth of park cabins to demonstrate they were really “moving forward.”

They spent over $250K on an independent prosecution, to show the “toothless contracts” were illegal under state law. They claimed the land deals were illegal, and violated the state constitution. And, that they would take back the park land and ask for legal costs. Then they abandoned the law suit to secretly mediate a deal on Pointe Vista’s behalf.

They still haven’t produced a written, signed contract including all of the terms of the settlement. For the purposes of the Court and the Media, Governor Fallin’s news releases on 9/16/2015 and 5/19/2016 constitute the “Pointe Vista Settlement Agreement.” Governor Fallin, representing the CLO, and Pointe Vista, jointly created those two news releases to simulate a legal agreement.

There are several problems with this. They fail to explain who was responsible for the state’s $250K court costs, and Pointe Vista’s court costs. They hide the fact that the CLO will continue to pursue the Area C federal land transfer (1,022 acres) from the Corp of Engineers on Pointe Vista’s behalf. They released Pointe Vista from all development requirements on May 12th in Marshall County clerk’s office. They lifted the restrictions on over 700 acres of land which were the focus of the lawsuit. They only bought back fifty of the original 758 acres sold in 2008.

When the CLO originally authorized the “Lake Texoma Redevelopment,” they created a $40 million fund to invest in the project. What happened to that $40 million? When Lake Texoma State Park needed a new lodge and serious “revitalization” back in the early 2000’s, there was no state funding. But when the CLO, Tourism and Pointe Vista came together for this “public / private partnership” they had plenty of cash on hand. Where did that money go?

The validity of the Area C contract between Tourism and Pointe Vista was at the core of the failed developer’s counter suit against the state. In mediating this issue, Tourism, Pointe Vista, the CLO and McAfee & Taft attorneys reached the final goal of a ten year conspiracy to take this park land. And they did it all behind closed doors with the help of a slick PR campaign. Perception management, they call it.

Stephen Willis is founder of Restore Lake Texoma State Park.

By Stephen Willis

Guest columnist

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