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.