ST. CLAIRSVILLE - At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Belmont County Recorder Mary Catherine Nixon found 120 natural gas abstractors waiting in the second floor hallway at the courthouse to search through property records inside her office.
As Gulfport Energy, Rice Energy, Antero Resources, Hess Corp. and Chesapeake Energy drill productive Utica Shale wells throughout the county, Nixon finds more and more abstractors coming to search through property records so their companies can sign mineral owners to leases valued at amounts at least as high as $7,500 per acre.
"I am at my wit's end. We are trying to do the best we can," Nixon said, adding that she believed traffic in her office was heavy last year when she would have an average of 50 people lining up to check the property documents. "They just keep coming."
Photo by Casey Junkins
About 120 natural gas abstractors line up in the second floor hallway at the Belmont County Courthouse this week while awaiting their chance to enter County Recorder Mary Catherine Nixon’s office to search property records.
Nixon and her staff first started seeing an increase in activity about three years ago, a time when drillers were first considering Belmont County as a target for horizontal drilling and fracking. With wells now named "Big Foot" and "Blue Thunder" in the heart of Belmont County, in addition to a "monster" lurking deep within the area known as Egypt Valley, drillers are acknowledging the wild levels of production they expect from Eastern Ohio's Utica Shale. Traffic at Nixon's office has increased because of these positive drilling results.
Nixon's office is now so busy on a daily basis that she has to limit the number of people inside to 35 at one time, with those abstractors restricted to a one-hour time limit. After the hour passes, 35 more people can enter the office.
"It is just a tough situation," she said. "When we had 65 people inside the office at a time, it was so crowded and cramped that they could not get any work done."
However, because the Belmont County Treasurer's Office and the county's Juvenile and Probate Court are also on the second floor, having so many people lined up in the hallway is creating a problem.
"It is not an issue to have people waiting outside the office. But when they begin causing a disruption for other offices, that is when we have a problem," said Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas, adding he and fellow commissioners Ginny Favede and Matt Coffland have met with Nixon to determine a solution.
"We have an issue in the building that I am going to say is a first for the Belmont County Courthouse. We just don't have enough space," Thomas said.
Nixon's office is now open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, as well as 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. She said some abstractors are paying for security to have extra hours in the office.
"They are all very cooperative. No one has ever really been a problem," Nixon said of the abstractors. "It's just so hard when you have so many of them."
While some deeds have been scanned into electronic format over the years, Nixon said only documents entered since April 2005 can be accessed over the Internet. To see older records, one must enter the office.
Everyone entering the courthouse must go through a security checkpoint operated by the Belmont County Sheriff's Department. Thomas said all alternatives are being explored, but said he hoped commissioners would not need to ask Sheriff Dave Lucas to station a deputy on the second floor.
"I hope we don't end up needing to have a deputy stand there to play 'traffic cop,'" Thomas said. "But we are going to look at all our options."
Nixon said her office has been so busy that it generated $1.7 million last year, up from $1.3 million in 2012. By comparison, the office only collected about $400,000 in 2004.
"I am so glad to see Belmont County get this," Nixon said. "So many farmers had virtually nothing. Now, they are getting some money."