Note, this was to be a 3 part series, but thanks the Mr. and Mrs. Musser reaching out; we learn how the solar company is still using their influence of big money to buy favor.
By Debbie Wachter | New Castle News Oct 21, 2023 (Part 4 of 4)
A North Beaver Township couple whose dairy farm dates back to the Revolutionary War says they’ve received a proposed contract from Vesper Energy with a generous money offer to keep them from bad-mouthing a proposed solar farm project in their area.
The contract proposal from Vesper Energy of Allen, Texas, arrived at the Musser’s North Beaver Township dairy farm, which dates back to the Revolutionary War, by FedEx delivery Aug. 14, Betsy Musser said. She and husband Dennis own 213 acres on Hope Road bordering the SNPJ camp. They raise 350 dairy cows and also have a herd of beef cows.
The Mussers are emphatic they don’t want to lease their prime farmland for Vesper’s proposed Firefly Solar project, which would generate electricity for business and industry, despite the company’s $30,000 offer to keep them from talking negatively about the project.
They said in a recent phone interview that they did not sign the proposed shut-up contract, nor do they intend to sign it.
“I’m against solar in any place on top of crop grounds,” Dennis Musser, 73, said. “Also, they’ll cut the timber wherever they go and there won’t be any woods left, and there won’t be any hunting grounds because the safety zones will be within 150 yards of it.
“This solar project is a joke, in my opinion,” he said. “I’ve never gotten involved politically in anything, until now.”
The Musser farm originated from a Revolutionary War grant, and the Mussers’ daughter, Cassie, 30, will be the eighth generation to take it over. The home farm is in agricultural preservation, as is Betsy Musser’s nearby family farm where she was raised, another 130 acres the family farms for crops and beef grazing on Mount Air Road. They also have rental acreage.
The Vesper contract proposal arrived with no cover letter, Betsy said, and the return address is from Jessica Stephens, a company representative in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“It’s a formal contract in legal jargon, with my wife’s and my name,” Dennis Musser said. “If we would sign it, on that date they’ll pay us $10,000 but we cannot say anything derogatory about this solar project. When they start construction, they would pay us another $30,000 and we can’t say anything. This is what they call the ‘good neighbor’ policy.
“It’s nothing more than to keep our mouths shut,” he said.
The company’s contract form calls it the “project cooperation agreement.” It provides that upon payment, the property owner will not object to, or in any way oppose the construction, installation or operation of the project, and will not take any direct or indirect action opposing the company’s application for the project before any federal, state or local authority.
The contract proposal also requires, once signed, the property owner be bound to confidentiality about it, except to potential purchasers of property.
Area farm leases signed with Vesper three to five years ago in the North Beaver Township area are about to expire this year, according to some of the farmers and a Vesper spokesman. Vesper has been meeting with landowners to try to renew those leases and push for new interest in the proposed project that would provide electricity to businesses and industry.
Betsy Musser, 59, commented, “I don’t have a problem with solar being on ground that’s not farmable, but I have a problem with using good ground for it, and I don’t understand why people don’t see that their food isn’t going to come from a grocery store. The good Lord gave us so much ground to feed ourselves.
“I don’t know if anybody else got these letters,” she said.
The Musser farm and the nearby Barth farm form a rectangle of land where the owners have not signed contracts to lease for the project, she said.
EJay Fyke, community affairs manager of Vesper Energy, said the proposed agreements, such as the one the Mussers received, are “good neighbor agreements” for the landowners who are not leasing to them, “so they would get something out of it and we would get something out of it — somebody who’s not participating but their quality of life is changed.”
Vesper has contacted such families dozens of times, along with leaders of the opposition to the project, and they were told the offers were coming in the mail, Fyke said, noting not all are the same. Some offers, in lieu of monetary compensation, guarantees like screening, allowing the neighbors to choose vegetation, changing the design, planting trees, building a driveway or installing a certain type of fencing.
“It’s up to the neighbors and what they want to make this project amenable to them,” he said. “For them, it’s essentially, ‘if you’re unhappy with the project, this is a way that, if there’s people who feel they’re getting a raw deal, we try to address people’s concerns. They’re all tailored differently.”
He said the company is focusing such offers on a handful of property owners who are closest to the project area.
He noted Vesper also is making local donations to organizations, like $1,000 to the Lawrence County Fair toward its fireworks display.
“We’re really trying to be a part of the community,” he said. “We’re trying to engage and become a part of the community, rather than being a faceless organization from Texas.”
Vesper’s grant program allocates $30,000 a year, broken into various amounts, and it has given to United Way, a Little League organization and DON Services locally, Fyke said. If the project goes forth, Vesper also is trying to secure a local manufacturer for the project, to keep the money local, he said.