Early Birds Get the Gas Leases

MIDDLEBOURNE – May 1 appeared to be a typical spring day in Tyler County: bright sunshine, chirping birds and youngsters awaiting the beginning of a new school day.

Outside the Tyler County Courthouse, however, the day started as anything but typical and hasn’t for the past several months.

More than 60 abstractors formed a line outside the courthouse, waiting for the day to begin.

While abstractors have clogged the hallways of many of the region’s courthouses in the past few years, what makes the case in Tyler County interesting is that some of the abstractors are sleeping outside the courthouse overnight to claim their spot in line. For those who have been camping out, the warm weather is a welcome change.

“Imagine what it’s like out here when it’s raining, or when it’s cold and snowing,” said Larry, a transplant from Texas working as an abstractor researching land, gas and oil deeds for energy companies and law firms.

Like Larry, many of those interviewed outside of the courthouse would only give their first name, noting they are bound to strict non-disclosure policies by their employers.

The dozens of individuals outside the courthouse show up long before the 8 a.m. opening each day, holding their place in line to sign up for records access.

The problem they are facing is that the records room in Tyler County is extremely small, holding a maximum of 16 people. To accommodate the increase in business, abstractors are limited to two-hour segments inside the records room and the courthouse has extended its hours to 8 p.m., Monday-Friday.

Some of those in line last week, which snaked from the back of the courthouse to the front – regulars called this a “light day” – said they had arrived at 1:30 a.m. with the sole mission to wait in line and sign the name of an abstractor who would then later show up to take their shift in the records room.

Though they would not give details of what they are being paid, one individual said it is “worth it” to brave the elements and long nights.

Here Comes the Boom

With a long history of gas and oil production, Tyler County is no stranger to such activity. When the most recent gas and oil boom hit more than three years ago, with attention focused on the Marcellus Shale, Tyler County was one of the first in the Northern Panhandle to see activity.

That activity has showed no signs of slowing.

“When I first started three years ago, it was just me and one other person,” said a man who asked to remain anonymous.

As more and more abstractors began arriving at the courthouse each morning, the clerk’s records room began to become crowded. At best, only 16 people can comfortably fit and work in the space.

To get a leg up on their competition, some abstractors began showing up a few hours before the courthouse’s opening. In an industry one individual called “cut throat,” the workers began arriving earlier and earlier.

“All of a sudden, there were more and more people,” said Tyler County Clerk Theresa Hamilton. “There was a point in time where they were putting cans and umbrellas in a line as a way to hold their place outside, and the public was not happy about that.”

Addressing Issues

Darren, who commutes each day from Marshall County, said workers would show up and put their marker in line before returning to their vehicles to take a nap. However, some began to take advantage of the unspoken place-holder rule, forcing county officials to take a stand.

“We’ve changed things so that now, a person’s body has to hold that place in line,” Hamilton said.

Additionally, county officials implemented a sign-up sheet, with workers signing up for two-hour blocks throughout the day, 16 abstractors at a time. With the limited amount of space, and thanks, in part, to the revenue generated through copies made by the abstractors, the county chose to keep the courthouse open an additional four hours each day, until 8 p.m. Those hours will stay in place until July 30, and Hamilton said she was unsure if it would continue longer.

Due to the increased use of the records books, some of which are several decades old, the county also is working to digitize its records. Hamilton said the Tyler County Commission has helped offset the wear and tear on the books by providing funds to have the books rebound, and also were proactive several years ago in scanning many of the books.

“That has been a blessing,” she said.

Hurry Up and Wait

Given no other choice but to physically wait in line, the abstractors and their hired proxies have gotten resourceful. The line is full of lawn chairs and blankets, as well as cots and air mattresses. Despite the proximity to W.Va. 18 and the large amount of truck traffic, most individuals seen during last week’s visit slept soundly, wrapped in blankets and sweatshirts to keep warm.

By 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, most of those in line were awake and packing up their belongings and getting ready for their official work day. Some ate breakfast or grabbed coffee from Barb’s Diner, just across the street from the courthouse. Owner Barb Anderson said the influx of people has helped her and the local economy.

“We have good days and bad days, but this certainly helps,” she said.

At 8 a.m., the abstractors filed into a hallway next to Hamilton’s office to sign-up for the records room. For some who are stuck with slots later in the day, they are able to go to their company’s offices in downtown Middlebourne. While a handful of companies have rented out spaces for such occasions, others are not as lucky.

“A lot of these people are staying more than an hour away,” said Larry, who alternates between hotels in Marietta and Parkersburg. “It isn’t as simple as going back to your room and waiting.”

For those who are lucky enough to get earlier slots, they take to the records room as soon as possible. By 8:02 a.m., the room was full and workers were quickly jotting notes to take full advantage of their time. Larry said the nature of the job, as well as the lack of wireless Internet in the courthouse and limited cell phone coverage in the area, forces some workers to gather all of their information in their two-hour window before going elsewhere to input the information into a computer.

“It actually works better that way,” he said. “You don’t want others to know what you’re working on.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton said other than the initial concerns with waiting in line, the abstractors have been easy to work with. Likewise, many of those interviewed said they had a good relationship with county workers and officials and are understanding of the time limits and changes that have been made.

“This all could go away at any minute,” Larry said of the industry. “How much do you want to change when you don’t know when its going to go away?”