CALDWELL - A flurry of activity fills the halls of the Noble County Courthouse these days.
Independent contractors for oil and gas companies have laptops set up on tables on the second floor, researching property deeds and mineral rights in anticipation of tapping into the potentially rich oil and natural gas deposits of the Utica shale. They started coming in last year, with activity picking up in February or March and numbers growing even more in recent months.
Noble County Recorder Phyllis Stritz said she's never seen anything like it.
"It's like this big wave that's coming across and engulfing us," said Stritz, who has been recorder for 11 years and worked in the office for a total of 35.
The recorder's office took in about $13,000 in revenue from making copies in all of 2010. At the start of December, copy revenue for 2011 had already eclipsed $90,000, she said.
The price is $2 a page for a staff member to make the copy. People had been able to print their own for 25 cents a page but that option was eliminated after one individual made numerous printouts without paying, something Stritz said was an isolated incident.
"On the whole, they're very nice people," she said.
Overall revenue for the office is up $140,000 over this time last year and Stritz has hired two additional workers - one full-time, one part-time. "All they do all day long is make copies for the contractors," she said.
One of those contractors is 1998 Marietta High School graduate Joe Hammond, 31. The Columbus resident said he's been at the courthouse from open to close for eight weeks doing title research and has taken the opportunity to visit his hometown.
While some of the earliest arrivals were speculators, most of the people working the halls now are researching the mineral rights on land whose owners have signed agreements with the companies employing the contractors, said Noble County Auditor Jody Parrish Polen. Reported lease prices in the region have been going for a few thousand dollars an acre, with higher percentages than usual agreed to for royalties.
The contractors generally are checking to see if a property's mineral rights are free and clear before the lease is paid, Polen said. "They go to see if there was ever a lease on that property and then they try to find a copy of that lease," she said. "They find out what mineral rights you have leased. Have you leased to the center of the Earth?
"If you just lease to the Berea (sands), then below that's free," Polen said.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has issued permits for four horizontal wells in Noble County, utilizing the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Drilling is under way at one in Seneca Township. Once those are started and it's known if the production is as good as hoped, things could get even busier, Polen said.
"Right now, this is just the beginning," she said.