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The Gates Millbillies

The richest part of town is also the richest underground.


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If you're lucky, your well could earn you more than $100,000 a year. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • If you're lucky, your well could earn you more than $100,000 a year.

Driving into Gates Mills from the bustle of Mayfield Road, you notice the air change in scent. Stark office buildings give way to tall pines, rolling hills, and cobblestone driveways that disappear into woods like pathways to Narnia. Follow them back and you'll find real mansions, not like the wannabes in Westlake or Hudson. Surprisingly normal, friendly people answer their doors. They're called staff.

Preserving the aesthetic of the English Cotswolds in Cuyahoga County isn't easy. Lots must be at least five acres. Architects must submit home plans to a historical review board. One rule says fences must be shorter than six feet. At least that was the rule, until they found gold here — black gold, that is. Texas Tea.

"It's not really something that you would have expected to occur," says the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Mike McCormac of the suburban oil-and-gas boom.

Geologists have known for a century that rock thousands of feet below the surface of Cuyahoga County is rich in oil and natural gas. Private wells were common back in the early 1900s, dotting large estates from Bay Village to East Cleveland. Then suburbs started covering up the land. Drilling got pushed out to the hinterlands.

It wasn't until gas prices soared that energy companies took a second look at the region. The potential was right under our feet; the only problem was getting to it.

Most suburbs, especially those as hoity-toity as Gates Mills, weren't keen on bands of wildcatters arriving with 100-foot drills and erecting unseemly metal tanks surrounded by chain-link fences on pristine estates.

Instead of wasting time on a losing battle with local officials, gas providers simply went over their heads. The industry lobbied Ohio legislators to strip control from cities and hand it over to the state. In 2004, the legislature passed just such a law. In Columbus, what money wants, money gets.

"City councils do very well regulating their own communities," says Tom Stewart of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association. "But they know very little about regulating an oil and gas well."

Governor Taft's signature on the bill had barely dried when the first gas well came to Gates Mills, drilled by resident and former TRW Chairman Joseph Gorman. His castle-like home features a greenhouse and a bell tower. Inside, a spiral staircase stretches up three floors. The haggard crew from the oil company drove their gas rig right onto Gorman's apple orchard. There they sat, drilling 24 hours a day for a week, until they hit the sweet spot more than 3,000 feet below ground. The well sits enclosed by a wooden fence, just down from Gorman's tennis courts. Nearby rest tanks the size of compact cars — one to collect oil, another to collect brine, a by-product.

Three years later, you can't drive a mile in Gates Mills without seeing a similar site. Of the 221 drilling permits issued in Cuyahoga County since the 2004 law, 50 have gone to Gates Mills. Ironically, the village sits above one of the richest pocket of gas — so rich that existing pipelines are stressing under the load.

"More natural gas has been found than what the local utility can handle," says Stewart. "It's too much of a good thing."

These days, salesmen from the drilling companies canvass Gates Mills like Girl Scouts, pitching residents on the new gold rush. Sign on the dotted line to lease your mineral rights, and you can watch out the window as a drilling rig resembling the Eiffel Tower is erected in your backyard. Fifty-foot sections of bit go into the ground, stacked end-to-end, the way you would assemble the stem of an IKEA floor lamp.

Most people receive free gas plus some spending money from the royalty checks. But there's always the prospect of striking real gold. A well on Highland Park Golf Course leased by the City of Cleveland produced more than $1.2 million in natural gas and oil in 2005. The city gets a cut of at least 12 percent.

"Why wouldn't you do it?" says one resident, a retired builder who had a well drilled in his backyard. "If you don't do it, someone else will."

Mortgage broker Jennifer Creech's stone mansion sits atop a grassy hill, as solid as a boulder jutting out of the ground. The kitchen features appliances so large you feel like a doll in a dollhouse. But what lies beneath is what convinced Creech to buy here. She was paying almost $3,000 a month for heat during the winter. Now her well picks up most of that — plus more than enough to cover the payments on the family cars.

Unfortunately, Creech's job is forcing her to move again and put her home up for sale in a shaky market. "We were concerned about losing money on the house," she says. "The gas well is the only thing protecting us."

Mayor Connie White, a bespectacled, grandmotherly lady dressed like a grade-school teacher in plaid and denim, wrinkles her nose when asked about the wells — which, in some places, jut up against the road, concealed by nothing but a rusty fence and an old padlock. "The well people," she says, referring to the oil-covered men with beards like Santa Claus, "don't exactly add to the atmosphere of the village."

The mayor also worries about safety. She's been around long enough to remember the 1984 fire that raged at Gilmour Academy, a posh Gates Mills school that heats its buildings from its own wells. The fire started when a worker tried to repair a well . . . with a blowtorch.

Despite the mayor's concerns, the village now has three wells of its own. One sits behind City Hall, and two more are in the median on Gates Mills Boulevard. That's free heat for City Hall, the community center, and the village's service garages.

But the sentimental side of Mayor White, who's lived here since childhood, wants her pastoral countryside back. She says, looking down her nose through her spectacles, "We work hard to keep it that way."

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