Grafton Deeds to Charge Online Users

North Haverhill — After six years of unfettered access to online document-viewing, the Grafton County register of deeds is putting up a paywall in an effort to boost revenue.

Starting in August, online users of the county registry will need to fork over about $6 to view documents online, with an additional fee of $2 per page for printing. Annual subscriptions to the registry, which used to cost $50, will instead cost $120, or $10 per month.

Grafton County Register of Deeds Kelley Monahan, an Orford Democrat, said yesterday that the new payment system meets the state law that requires her office to provide what she called “reasonable access” to the public documents, given that the documents can still be viewed — but not printed — in the county’s North Haverhill offices free of charge.

“Back in the day, a day’s ride on a horse was reasonable access,” Monahan said. “The consumer and the professional can still walk in here and get access to these documents, so the savings is on the convenience side of the Internet.”

Monahan added that state law does not dictate that the registry of deeds needs to be accessible online, only that the registry must be accessible during regular office hours, which are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Occasional users now will need to pay the $6 fee to pull up a field of 200 names, including both land buyers and sellers. The user will then be able to put documents in the print queue for an additional charge.

As it stands now, users can pull up and view unofficial, watermarked versions of the documents for free, but must pay a fee to have the watermarks removed and print out official versions of the documents. Monahan said that has led to some more sophisticated users capturing the images without paying the fee.

Grafton County Commissioner Mike Cryans, a Hanover Democrat, supports the policy change. He said that image-capture loophole was “the driving force behind the whole thing.”

“People are using it and printing it, and the goal is to have them pay for it,” Cryans said.

Sullivan County Register of Deeds Sharron King said that her office to the south has experienced a similar problem with what she described as people “scoffing records” from the registry. She said that the loss of revenue could create pressure to increase copy costs, which the Sullivan County office has not done since the early 1970s, or even cut jobs.

In response, King implemented a system that spreads the preview information from one page of a document out over a number of pages, which makes it harder to duplicate the image in a usable format.

“It got the public very angry with me about it, but it’s like I said to them, ‘Then you need to go tell your fellow people that when they scoff a record like that, and you interfere with my revenue, I’m going to have to take a hard look at what I can do to prevent it or slow it down as best as I can possibly do,’ ” King said.

Monahan said she “toyed” with a similar idea, as well as additional watermarks, but added that it would have placed a burden on some of the more regular users who view the documents “eight hours a day.”

“It’s really a strain,” Monahan said. “That’s what (King) has chosen to do and she didn’t get much push-back. I got push-back on breaking apart the pages.”

Real estate attorneys, banks, title companies and independent abstractors, who prepare and certify the condensed history of the ownership of a parcel of land, are among the most common users of the online deeds registry. Lynn Wheeler, an independent abstractor, said she goes to the county offices once a day typically, primarily working for attorneys and other professional users who might need her services.

Regarding the more than doubling of the yearly fee, Wheeler said that for “someone like me, who’s at a small scale, it makes a difference. But for a larger outfit, like a big title company, they’re not even going to blink at it.”

Wheeler anticipated some objectors to the new policy raising issues with the added fees.

“I don’t think it will just go away,” Wheeler said. “I think it’s a risk (Monahan is) going to have to take.”

Early signs of opposition were already present yesterday, from both predictable and less predictable sources.

Lebanon Republican and former register of deeds Bill Sharp, who first brought the county records online, called the switch to a paid system “an outrageous affront to the citizens of Grafton County.”

“The county is looking for ways to skirt the process and make it more difficult, create more hoops for people to jump through in order to do what should be an ordinary, easy way of doing business,” said Sharp. “I’m chagrined that this kind of thing is happening, but I’m not surprised. This is the way Democrats have been doing it for a long time.”

Francis Muzzey, president of the Wentworth Historical Society, took Grafton County to court nearly 40 years ago over a similar issue, even though it happened in a pre-Internet era.

In 1974, Muzzey won a lawsuit against Charles Wood, who was then the register of deeds, after county officials prevented Muzzey from using a camera to take pictures of the land documents for historical research papers. The Grafton County Superior Court ruled that the register of deeds must allow Muzzey to reproduce images of the documents as long as it was carried out in a room close to a vault.

Muzzey, who still lives in Wentworth and still uses the registry for his historical research, spoke out against the policy change yesterday.

“My general feeling is that the government doesn’t know how to cut back spending, so they have to find sources of revenue even if it means depriving people of their rights,” he said.

Muzzey added that he has no Internet access in his house and visits the registry in person when he needs to copy a document, so the policy change doesn’t directly affect him. That aside, Muzzey said he would be looking into the prospect of challenging the county once again in court.

“I’ll challenge it just to have some fun,” he said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

CORRECTIONS

This article has been amended to correct earlier errors.

A new system proposed for searching records of the Grafton County Registry of Deeds over the Internet includes a metered system to monitor search and print charges, but there is no time limit.

Additionally, visitors to the Registry of Deeds office in North Haverhill are allowed to photograph documents in a public viewing room.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the online process and the room for visitors.