The Marcellus Boom: Title/deed researchers jam some county row offices

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The Marcellus Shale drilling boom is reverberating through Butler County -- as much within the halls of county government as in the prospective natural gas fields, as focus expands from counties in the southwest corner of the state.

Contractors hired by gas companies to research mineral and land deeds are sometimes elbow-to-elbow in Butler County and some other counties' row offices, creating the potential for crowding hazards. As a result, some counties have had to set restrictions on computer and office use, often based on how modernized the records-keeping system is.

Butler Recorder of Deeds Michelle Mustello has posted a 31-person restriction on the "deed room" in her office, based on fire safety regulations.

The employees hired to do the title/deed research -- known as abstractors -- aren't happy.

"We need access to the records," said Barbara Bowker of Holland Acquisitions, a company based in Fort Worth, Texas. "If we can't get into the office when we need to, it will really affect our ability to get our work done. We need total access."

Companies like hers have been retained by drilling companies that want to buy mineral rights from property owners. Ownership of the mineral rights and the land atop those resources needs to be verified and the titles must be researched and certified as free of liens and encumbrances.

Ms. Bowker, of Oklahoma, has been in Butler working on title clearances since August and she expects to be there another year or so. She said some researchers are spending too much time in the deeds office, essentially setting up shop there.

"They need to pull the reports, look at them, then leave. Some stay in there with their laptops and do personal reports. Take that work elsewhere."

She said her company has offered to buy more microfilm viewing machines; pay rent for space in the building; and may even be willing to cover the cost of opening up the building at night.

Keith Schwartz of Western Land Services in Butler also is concerned about the restrictions on entry to the recorder of deeds office. He said he's been researching in the offices for about 18 months and the crowds have been growing.

"I just hope the policy is applied fairly," he said.

Ms. Mustello said she doesn't have a policy, per se.

"I'm not going to ban laptops or tell people how to conduct their business. The fire marshal has put a limit on the occupancy load. I'll monitor that. But I'm not going to set time limits for people. I'm hoping they'll police themselves and be reasonable," she said.

Other counties have varying degrees of similar experiences.

In Beaver County, Recorder of Deeds Janice Beall said the situation has eased somewhat since November, when the county increased the number of computers for deed research from 10 to 14 and added four printers accessible from any computer. But today researchers should find a sign posted in the research area that requires two of the computers to be available for the general public to use at all times.

"When [abstractors] come in, I have a little sit-down with them and tell them this is not their office and here's how we're going to do things," she said. "They've been pretty cooperative so far, and the additional computers have helped."

She said her office has records available online from 1957 to present and available on computer at the office from 1800.

In Westmoreland, Recorder of Deeds Tom Murphy said most records from 1783 forward are available on line, reducing the amount of in-office research at his office. But the system is still busy, he said, with the website averaging 10,000 to 15,000 hits a day.

Debbie Bardella, recorder of deeds in Washington County, said plenty of abstractors visit her office.

"We have plenty of people doing research, but they are spread out and most of our records are computerized, so we really haven't had any problems," she said.

In Butler, recent deed information is in digital form that can be accessed via the Internet; records from the 1800s and up to the 1950s must be viewed in the deeds room on microfilm.

Ms. Mustello's office isn't the only one being impacted by title research. The work often spills over into the Register of Wills and Prothonotary offices as well, though not to the same extent.

"We just work around them," Prothonotary Glenna Walters said, noting that she's seen more and more researchers during the past seven months or so.

The title work is generating revenue as well as crowds.

Ms. Walters said she's been getting about $1,000 a month from copying fees.

Controller Jack McMillin said the numbers are much bigger in the recorder's office. Copying fees went from $20,000 annually in 2009 to $60,000 in 2010. Copying fees vary, from 25 cents per page to $1 per page, depending on what is being copied and by what method.

County solicitor Julie Graham said the public must have access to records but county row officers also "have the right to run their offices as they see fit."

She said the county commissioners office will work with Ms. Mustello to "explore all options."

Ms. Mustello said she's checking into the cost and time demands of digitizing the old records. "We want to accommodate," she said.

Karen Kane: or 724-772-9180. Staff writer Ed Blazina contributed.


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