Gov. Roy Cooper in 2012, while serving as state attorney general, agreed to lease a Nash County property he and his brother Pell owned to Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar for the construction and operation of a 4.9-megawatt solar facility.
The lease agreement may be worth more than $1 million, based on industry standards. The Coopers’ economic interest statements haven’t mentioned any solar company. (Pell Cooper has served as a District Court judge since 1999.) Roy claimed he gave up his interest in the property in 2014 but didn’t report income from the transaction.
On Nov. 16, 2012, Nash 58 Farm LLC, a subsidiary of Strata Solar, submitted an application to the N.C. Utilities Commission to build a 4.9-megawatt solar facility. The application stated the facility would be located on N.C. Highway 58 in Nash County, south of the Castalia community. The aerial photo accompanying the application showed a site containing approximately 85 acres.
The application also stated, “Nash 58 Farm, LLC, will own the facility and will lease the site from Roy A. Cooper, III, the current owner.” The land has been in the Cooper family since 1981 when Roy and Pell’s father, Roy Cooper, Jr., acquired it. In 1996, their father sold the land to his sons and their wives.
In December 2012, the Cooper brothers created a new limited liability company named Will Clark Properties LLC, and transferred ownership of the solar parcel to that entity. On Jan. 4, 2013, Will Clark Properties signed a 20-year lease agreement with Nash 58 Farm.
Cooper’s lease agreement is not recorded with the Nash County Register of Deeds and the annual lease payments are not available to the public. A memorandum of lease, containing some of the lease details, is recorded. That document states the lease began January 2013 and continues to May 2034 and that it is renewable for two five-year terms. The Utilities Commission approved the project Jan. 24, 2013.
On state-mandated economic interest statements, Roy Cooper listed rental income from Will Clark Properties during 2013 and 2014, but did not mention the income originated from a lease to the Strata Solar subsidiary.
According to one economic interest statement, in November 2014 Roy Cooper reportedly ended his relationship with Will Clark Properties. That left Pell Cooper as the only known principal in the parcel containing the 40-acre solar farm. Gov. Cooper’s spokeswoman Noelle Talley told Carolina Journal that the governor no longer owns Will Clark Properties, but she did not respond to further questions about the company, the value of the lease, and the nature of the governor’s divestiture from the business.
In November 2014, the same month Roy Cooper said his interest in Will Clark Properties ended, the LLC transferred the original 85 acres — minus the 40-acre parcel containing the actual solar panels — to Sapony Creek Properties, another new entity created and controlled by Roy and Pell Cooper.
Current Nash County land records show Sapony Creek Properties owns three parcels adjacent to the 40-acre solar farm; Will Clark Properties still owns the solar farm. The parcel with the solar farm is in the middle of the surrounding Sapony Creek-owned land.
The solar project, completed in October 2013, became Nash County’s third solar farm. There are approximately 20 solar projects operating in Nash County.
A 2017 report from the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association stated that annual rent payments from N.C. solar companies typically range between $500 and $1,400 per acre. Based on that range, the lease payments for the Cooper 40-acre solar site would be between $400,000 and $1.12 million for a 20-year lease term, and as much as $1.68 million if the lease were extended to 30 years. Payments could be higher if the lease contains an inflation provision.
The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement State Board is required to collect and maintain Statements of Economic Interest from certain public officials. The statements are public records.
Jonathan Jones, an Elon University communications professor who is director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, reviewed details provided by CJ of Cooper’s land transactions and financial disclosures. He suggested the disclosures painted a murky picture of the governor’s handling of the property transactions.
“Financial disclosure statements are critically important. They give the public the ability to understand the business dealings of elected officials and how those may or may not affect decision making. The disclosures of Gov. Cooper regarding Will Clark create reasonable questions about what happened to his interest in the solar farm property,” Jones said.
In August 2016, Strata Solar Chief Executive Officer Markus Wilhelm and Strata Solar Chief Administrative Officer Cathy Wilhelm each gave $5,100 to Cooper’s campaign for governor.