CARROLLTON - He's been in business as a Carrollton Realtor and auctioneer for more than 20 years, but Bill Newell says he's never seen the rental property market here so strong.
Newell attributes the uptick in rentals to an influx of oil and gas drilling workers who converge on this tiny eastern Ohio village for two-week stints on drilling rigs that have been popping up around the county.
Deals get more lucrative in Carroll County
''We don't have much hotel room, so they'll pay more for a good, clean rental property,'' Newell said. The community has only one hotel, the Days Inn that now is routinely filled to capacity.
''We have had an increased number of calls from companies and individuals coming in to work in the area,'' he said. ''The greatest demand is for rental properties, but a lot of them are looking for month-to-month leases.''
And now that property values in the area have begun to stabilize, the Realtor said he expects they may even be on the rise again soon.
''Fall was very busy. We had more homes moving than we've seen in the last several years during that time,'' he said. Newell said his company even began operating in a property management capacity for some landowners who want top rent for their property but don't want the hassle of dealing with tenants.
Late last month, even the county jumped into the real estate game, accepting the donation of the Atwood Lake Resort, a 104-room hotel and conference center, from the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.
The 500-acre lake property with two golf courses just south of Carrollton likely will be used to house gas and oil well workers.
Deals get more lucrative
Farmers take advantage of signing bonus
CARROLLTON - For years, Carroll County farmers made a living from what they could grow above ground. Dairy and beef herds, along with pine trees farms, dotted the county's rolling Appalachian foothills.
Now, some are making $5,000-plus per acre from what lies below ground - a lucrative mixture of oil and natural gas.
Natural gas exploration companies hungry for a piece of the Utica shale have been signing leases with landowners for about four years, and paying increasingly more for the right to drill.
''When they came through in the last three to four years getting leases signed, people were getting $50 an acre to sign the lease, and now they're getting over $5,000 an acre,'' Carroll County Commissioner Thomas Wheaton told a reporter during a recent visit to his eastern Ohio community. ''If you own 100 acres, that's $500,000 you'd get just to sign your name.''
Some 760 farms cover 45 percent of the county, averaging 151 acres each, according to the Ohio Department of Development. As of mid-January, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources showed there are 101 Utica shale wells permitted. Four already are operating. That's in addition to the 31 that are permitted to begin drilling, according to Carroll County Engineer David Miskimen.
As with many counties in eastern Ohio, the drilling boom is easing serious financial strains. The arrival of drillers comes with challenges, though.
Linda Yeager of the Soil and Water Conservation District said drilling pads take up 10 to 15 acres, plus there is space lost to access roads. The land is not available for growing crops after the well has outlived its usefulness and the site is restored.
Still, Yeager said while many landowners have land and water concerns, she has not been hearing complaints.
''They've been cooperative,'' she said. ''We've been out to some of the sites for Chesapeake (Energy Corp.), and what we see is they're doing a pretty good job of taking care of the natural resources and water and erosion.''
Farm Bureau President John Davis said most farmers he knows find Chesapeake, the primary shale player in the county, to be a good neighbor.
''They're good housekeepers and good neighbors,'' he said. ''They're environmentally friendly. They drill under the creeks and roads, not through them.''
The new influx of signing bonus money has helped individual farmers in big ways. Some have paid off their loans, pleasing lenders as much as the borrowers.
In other cases, new and much-needed farm equipment finds its way into barns, and in some cases new barns are raised or old ones repaired.
''With signing bonuses, every farmer had a nice new pickup truck. Some are buying equipment,'' Wheaton said. ''We've seen some building of barns. People still want to farm, so they're improving the things they've needed to improve over the years but never had the money to do.''
Caution remains the name of the game, though. Davis worries that older farmers may have received a large signing bonus and even larger royalty checks and find the call of the fields not as demanding.
''Time's going to tell, I guess. I got a perception that some folks after working on a dairy farm 24/7 may choose to not do that again. A lot of our dairy farmers are up in age,'' he said. ''If some of these dairy farmers do choose to quit, their land still has to be farmed.''
But not everyone is happy with the leases they signed, especially early in the process, Wheaton said.
''On some leases, some of the older leases, where people felt that they got ripped off, when they signed them, it was a good deal. Maybe now it's a lot different,'' Wheaton said. ''They're more educated now. People signed leases without working with an attorney, without asking questions out of their own knowledge. We have no one to blame but ourselves.''
Cliff Little, who runs the Ohio State University Extension offices for Noble and Guernsey counties, wrote the ''Leasing Farmland for Oil and Gas Production'' fact sheet on the agency's website.
His advice is simple:
''The bottom line is, don't sign anything before you consult with your attorney,'' he said.
For Little, the future will be the best indicator.
''Once we see the production from the wells that come online this summer, that will likely spur a new round of leasing and new pricing structure,'' he said.
The resort and conference center has been inoperative since 2010. According to MWCD, since it opened in 1965, Atwood Lodge had been hemorrhaging roughly $160,000 per year, and in the final two years showed deficits of more that $1 million per year.
The terms of the land transfer provides Carroll County with the mineral rights to those hundreds of acres and frees money for MWCD to begin revitalizing other properties in their care.
The land transfer is just one of much activity that has been occurring in the Carroll County Recorder's Office.
From 2010 to 2011, the Recorder's Office there showed a jump in oil and gas leases from 495 to 1,781. Lease revenue increased from $369,224 in 2010 to $844,472 in 2011.
As the recorder spoke with a reporter, a clerk processed a single filing that would be better measured in thickness - well over 12 inches - than by the number of pages. The office charges $2 per page for a filing.
The only possible downside for locals, some experts say, is the out-of-towners driving up the rental rates.
Newell also pointed out that the promise or possibility of signing a lucrative gas lease has nearly eradicated a once thriving land market.
''We've normally had a good market to sell land. Now, because of the oil and gas, that has reversed, and we hardly have any land because everyone wants a lease deal, so no one wants to sell land.''
Those who do sell insist on retaining the mineral rights, a prospect most buyers would not find appealing.
''Our population, according to the census, in the year 2000 was exactly the same as it was in 2010: 28,836 I believe,'' said County Commissioner Thomas Wheaton. ''The same exact number, but that's certainly already changed in a year, and ... we'll see a major influx of population change, more need for schools, more need for places for people to live.''
Newell said a recent sheriff's auction boasted at least 30 registered bidders among the 60 or so people filling a small lobby.
''Some of the faces I saw were definitely people who recently received signing bonuses,'' he said.
And that's just the start, Newell said.
Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District Public Affairs Administrator Darrin Lautenschleger put it simply.
''It's going to be pretty exciting here for the next few months and years,'' he said.