Belmont County Looking to Lease

Belmont County just received a $3 million check for leasing the mineral rights to 406 acres of county-owned land, and now county commissioners are looking to lease the rights to another 426 acres at perhaps an even higher rate.

The announcement came during Wednesday’s commission meeting as county officials discussed finances and the need to improve infrastructure in the county to accommodate expected future development.

“We did sign for 406 acres with Rice Energy,” said Commission President Matt Coffland. “The check we received was for $7,500 an acre – for a little over $3 million. We have 426 more acres that we are working on right now to lease out, and we hope it comes out at better than $7,500 an acre. We will use that money as wisely as we did the first $3 million.”

Commissioners used the first $2 million of the leasing money to pay down the county’s higher-interest debt, then to borrow another $3 million for water well upgrades and waterline extensions in areas where development is anticipated. The remaining $1 million is being directed to the Interstate 70 connector road project in the Ohio Valley Plaza area.

Ohio is expected to make millions from oil and natural drilling operations in the coming years, and Commissioner Ginny Favede is leading a charge to direct more of the severance tax money coming from the industry to counties in East Ohio where the oil and gas is produced.

Favede said she will ask commissioners in Harrison, Jefferson, and Monroe counties, as well as those in Carroll, Columbiana, Coshocton, Guernsey, Holmes, Muskingum, Noble, Portage, Stark, Trumbull, Tuscarawas and Washington counties, to pass a resolution supporting that 75 percent of severance tax dollars collected be returned to communities impacted by oil and gas production. This money would be used to mitigate short-term and longer, adverse impacts on infrastructure, community resources and social services. The resolution suggests the remaining dollars be placed into a fund to pay for the plugging of orphaned wells.

The measures passed by county commissions will be turned over to Ohio Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, and Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire.

Gov. John Kasich has proposed keeping 80 percent of the severance tax at the state level, then returning the money to taxpayers in the form of an overall 8.5 percent income tax cut, Favede said.

The counties in East Ohio have always been “on the backside of Ohio” when it comes to getting funding from the state, and state lawmakers often haven’t acknowledged the importance to those counties, said Belmont County Auditor Andy Sutak.

“Now they know who they are, and they want our profit from gas and oil,” he said. “I can’t see that. We need that money back, because we’re going to see a lot of problems with roads in the future. It needs to be refunded back to us. … That’s money we can use to better our communities. We’ve lost so much with our industries going down.”

Commissioners on Tuesday also passed a motion granting the final plat for the Ohio Valley Place access road, leading to an expected development behind the Ohio Valley Mall.

“That plan is for the purpose of the Cafaro company – through its sister company that owns that parcel – to sell the land there for another hotel that will be built there as soon as this year,” said Commissioner Mark Thomas.

County Port Authority Director Larry Merry spoke of the Belmont County Oil and Gas Expo slated for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 1 at the Carnes Center in St. Clairsville. The free event will feature representatives from 140 companies seeking to educate about the industry, and speakers will include Rice Energy President Toby Rice.