PARKERSBURG - Wood County hasn't seen nearly the numbers of oil, gas researchers descending on its courthouse records room as some other areas, but officials said they are prepared if there is a sudden influx.
"We have seen some increase in the number of individuals doing oil and gas rights research. So far we've had two groups. One was out of Charleston; they had four to eight people in here everyday. They finished up about a month ago on their project. They have one person still in the area that comes in about once a week to check some records, but he's also working in Wirt and Ritchie counties," said Mark Rhodes, county clerk.
Another group of researchers from Texas was in the area. They brought in about six individuals and were in Wood County for about three months.
Photo by Pamela Brust
Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes said the county has so far only seen a couple of oil and gas firms send in representatives to do research in the local courthouse, but the county is prepared as the Marcellus Shale exploration moves farther south in the state.
"One of the groups that just moved into Pleasants County said they would probably be here in about six months. As more of the Shale exploration moves further south, they seem to come in just ahead of it," Rhodes said.
Some other counties have reported averaging 30-60 mineral rights researchers daily in their records rooms. Much of the reports of lines waiting to get into records rooms, overcrowding, and a lack of office or computer access, led some counties to set up additional office spaces and extend record room hours.
Wood County has not found the need to do either, Rhodes said.
"We have a much larger records room area than some of those smaller counties that are experiencing problems. Tyler County's entire deed room is about the size of just our estate room," Rhodes said. "I stopped in the Wetzel County Courthouse one day and you couldn't hardly walk through their records room for the amount of people that were doing research," he said.
Phyllis Brake, title extractor with Golden & Amos law firm, spends a lot of time in the local records room.
"It has been crowded down here at times," Brake said, noting even when there were more people doing research, she was still able to find a workspace.
Rhodes said most of the individuals that were in the records room with the oil and gas firms were trained researchers with a supervisor. They were looking for the owners of mineral rights on certain properties, which can sometimes be a tedious, confusing and time-consuming process.
"You have to start with the current property owner and work your way back to find when the mineral rights were split, or if they were ever split. Then you have to work your way forward to see who currently owns them. A lot of the mineral rights seem to have been split off here in the 1930s-1940s, so you can have multiple owners," Rhodes said.
In one example, the clerk said he and deputy clerk Martha DeVore, who has worked in the records room for many years, were trying to help someone and found, as part of an estate, the mineral rights had been divided up so many times they were looking at a one-eighth of one-thirtysixth interest.
"The leasing company would have to find every heir and have an agreement with that person, which can get complicated over a period of years. They may have to go to wills, appraisements, settlements," Rhodes said. He noted in one county some 1950s era estates had to be reopened because the mineral rights were left off the estates when everything was transferred over.
"They had to do the probate through the heirship to get the rights settled, and that's where an attorney would get involved," Rhodes said.
When there were more records room users, Rhodes said some issues were easily resolved by putting up signs for those from outside the area who might not be aware of the rules, like no food or drinks in the records room.
"There were a few problems, someone was down here playing a radio and we had to stop that because they were disturbing everyone else," Rhodes said.
"Some of them are very cooperative, others are not."
Some land records are online, and accessible on any computer anywhere through the county's web page: www.woodcountywv.com. Others are only available in the land books in the records room, older records were handwritten.
Rhodes said the clerk's office has been working with the West Virginia State Archives Department for sometime trying to digitilize more of the records so they can be added to the online collection. He said those possibilities are still being explored although archives had some issues with the quality of some of the images.
"I think our option now is to back index and scan to get them digital, and there are grants available to help with that we can apply for, our concern is preserving the books," Rhodes said.
The records are public and accessible to all, but if you want to copy a document, the charge is $1.50 for the first two pages, and $1 a page after that. The fees are set by the state legislature and are the same statewide.
The increase in record room visitors has translated to an increase in copies. The clerk's office reported 116,000 copies last year.
"Some of that was due to the additional copies of birth certificates and marriage records which are now needed by the DMV, but some of it was from the oil and gas research," Rhodes said. The clerk's office earnings ended up being about $100,000 over projections for the year. Those funds go into the general county revenue.
In addition to efforts to get more records online, Rhodes said there have been discussions with county commissioners relating to afterhours access to the records room.
Currently, only local attorneys can pay for and obtain an afterhours card key to access the records room. They sign an agreement, there are security cameras in place, and any problems result in the loss of the key.
"But we didn't want to give out the keys to these out of town oil and gas research firms," Rhodes said.
In some other counties, additional evening hours were set to accommodate the mineral rights researchers, but Rhodes said he doesn't foresee that happening here. There may be additional staff time involved with helping people in the records room, including making copies.
"We can set up a copy account and have done that, if they have a business license and an agreement, we can bill them then they can make their own copies instead of staff doing it," Rhodes said, noting however one firm had racked up a $900 unpaid bill.
"It was taken care of after we sent them a certified letter noting possible court action," the clerk said.
Rhodes said there was only one request for afterhours use of the records room.
"I told him no and I told him why and he was fine with that," Rhodes said.
The clerk said he anticipates more oil and gas researchers as the Marcellus Shale movement moves further south.
"We are anticipating within five to six months there will be another group here," he said. "If we start getting a bigger influx, we may have to address those issues, but I think we have adequate space, and I think we'll be in good shape," Rhodes said. "We've known this was coming for a while now."