Marcellus Shale gas boom triggers property records rush
By MATT MURPHY
DAILY MAIL STAFF
FAIRMONT - Roughly three years ago, Marion County Clerk Janice Cosco started to notice something unusual. The number of people in the courthouse's record room kept growing - and growing and growing. Soon, she realized that the room couldn't handle any more people.
"One day, I went down to the record room and it was packed," Cosco said. "They were shoulder to shoulder."
Cosco and her staff were witnessing the flood of lawyers, brokers and abstractors coming to the area to research property records for Marcellus Shale drilling. And as gas companies increased their drilling interest in West Virginia, activity in the courthouse increased.
"It was a slow process in the beginning; then it gradually got larger and larger," she said. "We knew we had to do something."
The clerk and her staff set up 11 tables along the first floor of the courthouse and opened a room on the second floor for the influx of people to work. She provided extra keys to the record room to individual companies so workers could use the room in evenings and on weekends. She added three additional copiers to the record room because of the enormous number of copies the workers needed to make.
Cosco even purchased a coffeemaker and a small storage cabinet for the workers on her own. An average day can yield about 50 people seeking property records, which are public documents and free to examine.
"We have done everything humanly possible to accommodate these people," Cosco said.
Marion County is not alone. Record rooms in many of West Virginia's northern counties are being inundated with lawyers and brokerage firms associated with the Marcellus Shale boom.
Collectively, these people are known in the industry as "landmen," and their job is to locate property ownership rights for land that oil and gas companies see as attractive for drilling.
Tracking down those rights is no easy task.
In West Virginia, individual parcels can have numerous owners for surface, mineral and coal rights. Governments also own rights-of-ways through some properties.
In some counties records are digitized, and that simplifies the search for a property's history. In other cases, the landmen pore over large, heavy, sometimes handwritten books dating back to the county's inception.
The result? It can take weeks to track down all the people who control various rights associated with a certain property.
"It's like a big puzzle," said Nikki Moon, an independent consultant from Preston County who was scrutinizing property records at the courthouse in Fairmont. She said it's rare that a property owner will hold all of the rights to a tract.
"Anymore in West Virginia, you don't see that," she said.
While land records are public documents available for free examination, the storm of brokers, lawyers and abstractors has placed severe strain on record rooms, which are not built to handle so many people.
Each county is dealing with the influx in different ways, usually depending on the number of staff members a county clerk has available and the size of the courthouse.
"Marion County, they're very accommodating," Moon said. "In most courthouses, you've got to take your stuff and go home."
In the Marion County record room itself, Deputy Clerk Joe Colasessano oversees the operation of the room and interacts with the landmen each day.
"I'd say 90 to 95 percent of these people are oil and gas people," he said of recent visitors.
A significant number of the landmen are not from West Virginia, and Colasessano rattled off nine different home states of people he has met. He mentioned Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and North Dakota.
Some companies have established offices close to courthouses around the state. In Fairmont, one group of landmen from Alabama set up an office across Adams Street from the courthouse, and spelled out "ROLL TIDE" in their second-story windows as a tribute to their home state.
The visible impact of the workers has translated into a financial impact as well. Although examining records is free, printing and copying are not. Marion County charges $1.50 for the first two printed pages, and $1 per page thereafter, which is set by West Virginia Code. The money goes into the county's general fund.
In past years, that money didn't amount to much, but from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2012, the county collected $317,000 in copy and printing fees. Colasessano said one company alone printed $30,000 worth of documents in just five days.
To keep track of the enormous volume of fees, the county created an account system for individual users. The fees can be paid at the courthouse, or a bill can be sent to the responsible party. The clerk's office has created 282 accounts so far, and 200 are regularly active.
But in less-populous counties, courthouses and record rooms are smaller, and it's more difficult to accommodate the landmen. Wetzel County, for example, is slightly larger than Marion County in area but is three times smaller in population.
"Our record room is really, really small," Wetzel County Clerk Carol Haught said.
Haught said only 20 to 25 people can fit into the county's record room at a time, and additional people seeking records must wait outside until space becomes available. Her office has been experiencing the Marcellus boom's effects for four years, and an average day yields visits by about 30 landmen.
"At times we've had as many as 60 people trying to get into our records room," she said.
As a result of space issues, Haught's office has laid down several rules. Landmen must be courteous to one another, and no more than two representatives of the same company are allowed in at a time.
Haught's office also chose not to allow landmen to make their own copies out of concern for the safekeeping and integrity of the records. Instead, she has hired three college-age adults to work part-time making copies. In June alone, Wetzel County collected more than $31,000 in copy fees.
"Would we like a break?" Haught said. "Yes, but that's not going to happen."
Some counties are getting a slight, if temporary reprieve. On Wednesday the price of natural gas was hovering around $3 per million BTUs or thousand cubic feet. That's down from about $8 in 2008.
As the price of gas has fallen, developers have grown more interested in drilling for "wet gas," which contains liquids and other hydrocarbons that can be made into other products, as opposed to "dry gas," which is more exclusively methane. In West Virginia, wet gas reserves are in the Northern Panhandle and Wetzel and Tyler counties.
Doddridge County Clerk Beth Rogers said the number of people seeking entry into her record room has started to slack off, although the office remains busy. When she took office in January 2011, the Marcellus boom had just started in the county.
"During our busiest time, it was nothing for us to have 40 to 50 people to accommodate," she said, noting that her record room can fit around 15 people.
Because of the size of the room, Rogers imposed time limits. Each person gets a one-hour slot and then has to leave for at least an hour. People are allowed to stay if no one else is waiting.
Rogers also elected not to allow laptops in the record room because of space concerns. Doddridge County began digitizing its records only this month, so all information needed by the landmen is in books.
"Our system has worked pretty well," she said.
Like other areas, the clerk's office has collected about $26,000 each month for copies, with an all-time high of $31,000 in January of this year. Before the boom, the county averaged about $6,000 per month. The copy rate is the same as in Marion and Wetzel counties.
"It's just amazing to me," Rogers said of the boom.
In Fairmont, Cosco said she doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon. She said she has gotten to know many of the landmen, whom she says are a lot like staff members based on the number of times she sees the same faces. She also credits her staff for adapting to the onset of the shale workers.
"We took an oath of office," she said. "I am a public servant. I am here to serve the public. We're here to serve."