News: CJ Exclusives

Did solar company obtain land for Terra Ceia farm legally? 

Landowner’s widow says notary did not witness lease she and late husband signed

An artist rendering of solar panels overlaying a CJ aerial photograph of the Respess property surrounding the Terra Ceia Christian School. (CJ graphic)
An artist rendering of solar panels overlaying a CJ aerial photograph of the Respess property surrounding the Terra Ceia Christian School. (CJ graphic)

Gertrude Respess claims Wilkinson Solar, and its parent company Invenergy Solar Development, took advantage of her dying husband Rhonda to obtain farmland last year for a large solar installation in Beaufort County.

Gertrude’s attorney Mario Perez also says a notarized statement filed with the Beaufort County Register of Deeds was not true, because the notary was not present when Rhonda and Gertrude Respess signed the memo authorizing the lease and an easement on their property.

Perez says Gertrude has asked the company to cancel the lease, which could delay or kill the 74-megawatt solar project.

Last July, Invenergy contractor April Montgomery persuaded the Respesses to sign a lease for control of their 237-acre tract of farmland surrounding Terra Ceia Christian School in Beaufort County, east of Washington. Rhonda Respess died Oct. 16.

Perez sent a letter dated June 6 to Montgomery asking the lease to be canceled.

The letter states that when Rhonda signed the documents, he had known for several months he was dying of cancer.

“I believe we can produce medical evidence as well as the recollections of friends and family that [Rhonda] was a very sick man and that he may have not fully understood the nature of what he was signing. More importantly, given his physical and mental state, he may have been unduly influenced to sign documents without truly understanding the terms, conditions, and consequences,” the letter said.

As for the lease, Gertrude said no notary was present at signing, Perez told Carolina Journal. “There are significant discrepancies here. If the solar company wanted the signatures notarized, they should have done it the right way.”

He said Gertrude would return any money she has received from the lease. She does not want the solar facility and “wants a return to the status quo,” the letter said.

Wilkinson Solar formally launched the project on March 13 when it applied to the North Carolina Utilities Commission for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to construct a 74-MW solar facility, covering approximately 600 acres. The commission has conducted public hearings but has not yet approved the project.

A document titled “Memorandum of Solar Lease and Easement Agreement” recorded Oct. 11, 2016 with the Beaufort County Register of Deeds contains the signatures of Gertrude Respess and Rhonda Berl Respess. On a separate page, Lee County notary public Sarah Kerns affirmed those signatures. Kerns stated that on July 22, Rhonda Berl Respess and Gertrude Respess personally came before her and executed the document.

Gertrude Respess maintains no notary was present. She said April Montgomery was the only Invenergy representative present when she and her husband signed documents.

According to her LinkedIn page, Kerns was employed in 2016 as a planning manager for REAP (renewable energy and preservation), a Sanford-based consulting company Montgomery owns.

Kerns’ job duties included the “Creation of documents for renewable energy projects regarding project proposal, application to utility and management firms, land information, and leasing documents for utility companies and land owners.”

Kerns left that job at the end of 2016. She now works for the city of Dayton, Ohio. CJ telephoned Kerns June 20 to discuss the document she notarized. She asked CJ to email her a copy for review. Along with the document, CJ asked her if the Respesses appeared before her on July 22, 2016.  Kerns did not respond to multiple phone messages.

Later that day, she sent an email directing further questions to Invenergy, but the email did not answer the question, “Did they appear before you?” Instead, Kerns said, “The document was notarized July 22, 2016.”

The following day Kerns made a harassment claim to the local police department naming the CJ reporter. A police officer contacted the reporter, who said he believed Kerns may be involved in a crime related to her role as a notary public. (See Police Report.)

CJ contacted Invenergy senior analyst Ryan Van Portfliet, an employee working with Montgomery on the Wilkinson project, for comment. He said he would look into the notary issue but had not responded at press time.

The North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State Notary Public Section regulates and defines state policy for notaries public, educating, testing, qualifying, and commissioning them.

Notaries public acknowledge signatures, administer oaths and affirmations, and verify or prove signatures.

By state law, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor if a notary “Takes an acknowledgement or administers an oath or affirmation without the principal appearing in person before the notary.” It’s a Class 1 felony if a notary “Takes an acknowledgment or administers an oath or affirmation without the principal appearing in person before the notary if the notary does so with the intent to commit fraud.”

Notary complaints can be filed with the N.C. Secretary of State online at  http://www.sosnc.gov/tip/.