Shale affecting sales

The Garden of Reflection's Wall of Remembrance, with builder Andrew Cerasi, Shady Brook Farm's Eve Moody (center), and program director Valerie Mihalek. It will be unveiled Saturday in Lower Makefield.
The Garden of Reflection's Wall of Remembrance, with builder Andrew Cerasi, Shady Brook Farm's Eve Moody (center), and program director Valerie Mihalek. It will be unveiled Saturday in Lower Makefield. (BILL REED / Staff)

In Pa., a "mineral estate" is cut from a "surface estate."

Posted: September 03, 2011

Bob and Marlene Cook's home in Belle Vernon, southeast of Pittsburgh, was built in the 1770s by Bob's great-great-great grandfather, Col. Edward Cook.

In Cook family lore, a broad, flat stone placed by the porch was where George Washington once stood to address his troops.

Another stone once marked the grave of Edward Cook, who finished building the stone house at the heart of the Fayette County farm in 1776. Bob Cook, 75, lives on the 350-acre property now. He owns the stone house, but the bulk of the land is divided among 12 Cook heirs, who live as far away as Florida, Washington, Maine, and California.

The Cooks have not farmed this land for four decades, and for years the far-flung cousins struggled with the question of whether to sell the land.

After years of rising taxes and responsibility, they are all ready to sell.

They hoped a buyer might preserve the place as farmland, or perhaps a golf course, and many wanted to retain the mineral rights so that future owners wouldn't be able to permit the land to be disturbed by drilling.

But with the natural-gas industry's rapid expansion through Pennsylvania, the family began to realize that the possibility of controlling what would happen beneath the surface was less and less likely.

Pennsylvania law includes something called "mineral estate." It pertains to the ownership of minerals underground. It can include the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that underlies much of Appalachia. Such an estate can be "severed" from the surface estate and is the dominant estate. That means mineral estate owners have the right to develop or extract their holdings and must be given reasonable access to them.

"We had felt we'd been told for years by my parents and grandparents that we should maintain those mineral rights," said Cook heir Becky Bumsted, 70, of Lancaster County. "Then this whole Marcellus Shale thing seemed to pop up overnight, and we're learning that some people don't want to buy just the land."

The heirs decided to sell the rights to what lies under the farm. They are already under contract with Atlas Energy, now owned by Chevron, which has drilled nine shallow wells on the property.

Selling the mineral rights could lead to the deeper wells required to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.

"It's really changed the focus in our state," Bumsted said of the Marcellus boom. "In Western Pennsylvania, people are not so interested in the land for the land. They are interested in mineral rights."

Bob Cook grew up in this house and gathered enough money to buy it from the other Cook heirs in 1994.

"I'm not in a position to buy any of the rest of the heirs out," he said, "and I always told them and everyone else that I think way back when, early 1900s, the grandfather didn't do us any favors by leaving it to everyone then."

After Joseph A. Cook, Cook's grandfather, left the farm to his seven children, they divided their shares further among successive generations.

Bumsted and her cousins want to resolve the issue of the farm instead of passing it along to younger Cook descendants.

As a girl, Bumsted often visited the cemetery of Rehoboth Church, which Col. Cook helped to found and where all of the Cooks are buried. The Daughters of the American Revolution replaced Col. Cook's now smooth and illegible headstone there in 1932. "We were taught to respect our ancestors and all the things they had done," Bumsted said.

A landowner, judge, and storekeeper, Edward Cook also was a member of the Provincial Congress that drafted the first Declaration of Independence in June 1776, the same year construction was finished on the stone house. He was one of the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion and was founder of Fayette City, once called Cookstown.

At one point, Edward Cook held 3,000 acres in Washington, Westmoreland, and Fayette Counties. The holdings have dwindled over the centuries.

The few hundred acres the Cooks now hope to sell are the last of the land Edward Cook surveyed more than three centuries ago. "I do believe that we have a responsibility to try to be sure that this land somehow gets into the proper hands," Bumsted said.

Fayette County is among the more active areas in Pennsylvania for Marcellus drilling, with nearly 100 Marcellus wells drilled. More than 224 permits for drilling have been signed there since 2007.

For negotiating legal affairs, Cook is the spokesman for the Cook side of the family, and Joe Smith, 66, of Kennewick, Wash., speaks for the Smiths, the other branch of descendants of Joseph A. Cook.

Cook has done extensive renovations since buying the property in 1994 and knows the origin of every stone and beam. His five children all live in the area; Mark takes care of the chickens out back, and Robert S. lives in the redbrick house.

"I play the lottery," Robert S. Cook said, standing in the front yard. "I bought the lottery today and hope I'll be able to buy the whole place. I know it's a long shot, but it's the only shot I've got."

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