By Debbie Wachter | New Castle News (Part 2 of 4)
(Second in a series)
Controversy against a proposed North Beaver Township solar energy project erupted in 2021 after Vesper Energy of Texas approached farmers to lease prime land and install contiguous glass panels to produce large-scale electrical power.
The concept was enticing to farmers who wanted to generate more income from their agricultural land. But there were cautions during leasing, and one local farmer shared his own dealings with the company to date have left him unsure about what will happen next.
The North Beaver Township supervisors, in reaction to opposition, adopted an ordinance restricting commercial and industrial solar systems to industrial properties. That prevented Vesper from commencing with three- to five-year leases it already entered with farmers on their land.
One of its leases was with 71-year-old Herman Cvetan, who operates a 200-acre farm in North Beaver Township.
Cvetan, interviewed in early September, said about 20 to 25 farmers entered agreements with Vesper. Most of those are now expired or will expire around December.
Meanwhile, Vesper came into Lawrence County this summer trying to rejuvenate interest in the proposed project.
It sponsored an informational public open house in midsummer at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, and according to Cvetan, it treated some of the land owners to a restaurant lunch to regenerate interest in lease renewals.
He said he was one of only about five farmers to attend the luncheon.
North Beaver ordinance precludes the company from locating its solar energy-generating equipment on any agricultural land.
The measure also requires a company installing a commercial/industrial solar system in an industrial area to put bond money up front to ensure when the system might someday be decommissioned, 85 percent of the cost would be in place to pay for its removal and disposal.
The ordinance does allow private residents to have individual solar systems on their properties with guidelines. That gives farmers and other residents the right to put in their own solar systems for their own use.
Vesper Energy had the option of filing an appeal to the ordinance to the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas within a 30-day window after its adoption, but it did not seek that legal remedy.
Instead, it is looking to the landowners to spread a good word in trying to change the situation, Cvetan said in a recent phone interview.
A FARMER’S ATTEMPTED REMEDY
Cvetan said that upon advice from Chad A. Forcey, executive director of the Pennsylvania Conservative Energy Forum which advocates for alternative energy use, he filed action on March 28, 2022, through the state Office of the Attorney General, seeking a remedy to the ordinance under the state Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment (ACRE) Act.
Forcey participated in the recent open house Vesper Energy hosted at The Cathedral, where fewer than 10 residents attended.
Cvetan’s action before the attorney general was conceivably the first solar claim of its kind filed in Pennsylvania under ACRE, Forcey said during the open house roundtable discussion. ACRE remedies ensure ordinances local governments adopt to regulate normal agricultural operations do not violate state law.
Cvetan said his filing was on behalf of the 20 to 25 landowners who entered leases with Vesper. His name appeared online on the state filing. He proposed to allow the installation of the photovoltaic system on his North Beaver farm, according to his filing with the state, and he contended the township ordinance violates his right to farm.
“This ordinance is unduly restrictive and strips away the right of farmers, and farmers alone, from using their land to produce solar energy,” Cvetan claimed in his letter to the state agency.
North Beaver Township Solicitor Louis M. Perrotta had sent the state agency a response letter with the township’s position, saying the ordinance complies with Act 38 of 2005, which ensures local government exercises its responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens in regulating normal agricultural operations, and not unlawfully prohibit or limit a normal agricultural operation.
Perrotta’s letter noted the supervisors adopted the solar ordinance to permit solar uses within the township with appropriate limitations for public safety, health and welfare.
Cvetan said he received a letter a few months ago from the attorney general’s office saying the agency dismissed his filing.
The attorney general’s website merely said Cvetan’s appeal is “denied.”
A Vesper land leasing agent a few years ago approached farm owners in the township about leasing their fields to create a solar electrical power grid to be primarily in North Beaver Township but extend to neighboring municipalities, including SNPJ Borough.
The representative at the time told the supervisors the company’s plans were to establish a 400-megawatt system on 2,500 farmland acres in and around the township. He said the plans were to start building the $400-million system by the end of 2023. When finished, it would provide a million kilowatt hours, or 60,000 ohms, of electricity per year. He said there was no buyer yet for the electricity.
The township has three industrial zones, the largest off Route 18. Others are off Edinburg Road and Route 317 before the Bessemer Borough line.
“The leases are starting to run now out,” Cvetan said of Vesper’s three-to-five-year agreements with the farmers. He said it was his understanding leases would automatically renew with increases in payments, but the company is now facing farmers asking for four or five stipulations before agreeing to terms.
One is that the township ordinance be overturned. Another stipulation is the amount of money Vesper is willing to pay on a per-acre lease.
“We wanted $50, and they came back with an offer of $40,” Cvetan said. “We wanted $1,200 per acre once the company would start selling electricity. They offered $1,000 per acre at first, and we wanted $1,200 on the ground where the panels would be located.
“Right now, the farmers have a certain number of acres leased, but not all of that land can be used,” he explained, “and out of 100 acres, you may actually get 30 to 40 acres (where the panels are located). We countered for $1,200 and they told us, $1,100.”
Vesper told the farmers when the project is decommissioned in 30 to 40 years, “we’ll all be gone and this will be for our heirs,” and the farms can go back into production, Cvetan said.
“There are many, many unanswered questions with this outfit,” he said of Vesper, adding, “They’ve been kind of disappointing for us.
“Everyone’s opinion when we left that luncheon was that they just put this right back onto us to get this going, and to see if we could get the ordinance changed,” Cvetan said. “Right now with what is happening, we’ve lost some landowners who were plainly disgusted and said we’re done dealing with them and aren’t signing leases.
“They could offer $1 million an acre today and it would make no difference because we can’t get rid of the ordinance,” he said.
Cvetan said he still disagrees with the township ordinance because it dictates his rights of how to use his farmland. He has filed a nominating petition to run as an independent candidate for township supervisor in the Nov. 7 general election, and if he is elected, one of his goals will be to try to overturn what he calls an unfair ordinance
His campaign mailers are paid for by a political action committee called R.E.D. PAC, which is based in Austin, Texas, according to its website.
“They’re telling us how to run our farms,” he said of the current board of supervisors.
Since adopting the ordinance, the supervisors have not budged in their decision.
Supervisors Grant McKinley and Scott Barth voted in favor of enacting the ordinance. Barth reasoned at the time Vesper wanted to cover about one-tenth of the township in solar panels.
Supervisor Jerry Tillia voted against the ordinance.
McKinley, a Republican, is seeking reelection to his seat for six more years, and Cvetan will oppose him in the Nov. 7 race.
“Nothing has changed,” McKinley commented. “Mr. Cvetan lost his case. We’re solid in our ordinance.”
Neighboring New Beaver Borough Council also unanimously adopted a solar ordinance July 10, placing regulations on solar energy systems constructed within the borough.
Little Beaver Township, which neighbors North Beaver Township, adopted an ordinance similar to that of New Beaver Borough, regulating solar energy systems within the township, but Little Beaver Township has no zoning ordinance that would restrict the solar panels on farmland, explained Supervisor Robert Kuhn.
He said Little Beaver’s ordinance is standard and places certain restrictions on solar systems. New Beaver and Little Beaver share the same solicitor, Ryan Long.
“We’re really in the middle and not taking a stand right now,” Kuhn said of the solar issue. “We’re just doing what’s best for the township and talking with our solicitor about it.”
(Tomorrow: As farmers grow more reluctant, Vesper Energy representatives discuss the advantages of solar farms at a recent open house.)
With photos here