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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

Bargain values at troubled Lake Seneca

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE REAL ESTATE WRITER
JoAnn Wietecha was attracted to Lake Seneca because she could get more home and land for her money. 
ots are still for sale because of problems with keeping the man-made lake filled. JoAnn Wietecha was attracted to Lake Seneca because she could get more home and land for her money. ots are still for sale because of problems with keeping the man-made lake filled.
DIANE HIRES / BLADE Enlarge
An ad for the lake in 1966 promised a dream come true. An ad for the lake in 1966 promised a dream come true.
HO Enlarge

MONTPELIER, Ohio - When Gregg Snyder began looking for a cottage at Lake Seneca in 2000, he noticed the trees, the sandy beach, and ominously, the nearly empty lake bed that looked like a bathtub whose stopper had been pulled.

"We haven't had water since '96," a long-time resident advised him.

The problem was soon corrected, but the comeback continues for the Williams County weekend retreat that is an hour's drive west of Toledo.

While property values at inland lakes in nearby communities in Michigan and Indiana have skyrocketed, appreciation at Lake Seneca has been slower. For buyers looking for lake property, the 270-acre lake offers a rarity: affordability.

"The biggest problem is nobody knows we're here," said Mr. Snyder, who decided to buy in 2000 and today is president of the property owners' association. "Lake Seneca isn't on Ohio maps."

Rossford resident Chuck Duricek, who operates a metro Toledo auto repair shop, isn't complaining. He and his wife, Pam, had been looking for a weekend retreat for two years but found that "as soon as you get over the state line into Michigan or Indiana, prices get outrageous."

Then, they found a deal on Lake Seneca this year that was too good to pass up.

They landed a brick and frame house with a walkout basement, three bedrooms, half-acre lot, and 60-foot of lake frontage for less than $75,000.

Mr. Duricek conceded that the house needs work, but said he got a deal -even by Lake Seneca standards. It was well within the $120,000 to $130,000 target Mr. and Mrs. Duricek set when they began their hunt.

The development, on Ohio Route 576 in the tiny crossroads of Bridgewater Center, had disadvantages even before an unfortunate event in 1996 drained most of the lake water, according to property owners and real estate agents.

It was man-made while most other popular lakes in the region are natural; its water is murky rather than clear because Seneca was created by damming the St. Joseph River; it is shallow in spots; and it has had a turbulent history that included the bankruptcy of the developer.

Throughout the late 1990s, when a thriving economy and booming stock market created wealth that boosted demand for second homes regionally and nationally, owners of property on Lake Seneca missed the run-up in prices.

"Without water, you couldn't give lots away," recalled Donald Bowen, former president of the property owners association.

Lake Seneca was opened in 1966 by American Realty Service Corp., of Memphis. An advertising campaign, complete with radio jingles and full-page print advertisements, ran in Toledo and other big cities within driving distance. "Your dreams can come true at beautiful Lake Seneca," the ads teased.

Still, sales initially were slow, partly because the 1,400-lot Lake Seneca was competing with two other new lake subdivisions offered nearby by developers: Lake Diane and Merry Lake. At

nearby: Lake Diane and Merry Lake. At one point, non-lakefront acreage seized by Williams County for unpaid taxes was sold for $5 a lot. But more houses gradually began to rise along the winding lake perimeter.

Thirty years after Lake Seneca opened, Donald Bowen was performing maintenance near the man-made dam that created the lake when he heard an ominous hollow sound as a car passed by.

Concerned, he and other owners drilled into concrete portions of the dam with jackhammers. They were stunned by what they found: several huge spaces where clay was supposed to be. The biggest void was 60 feet long and seven feet deep. Not only had clay washed away through seams, but the men found old tires and other fill material where clay was supposed to be.

Stunned, they brought in loads of sand to fill the holes. But it too was washed away -by the next morning.

With the structure in danger of collapsing and flooding nearby communities, the county's emergency management director entered the picture.

The dam would have to be opened so that water could flow out gradually rather than in a deluge. Police were posted to the site. And members of the board of the property owners association kept an all-night vigil to watch for trouble.

When the process was finished in 1996, Lake Seneca was little more than a dry lake bed with a river running through it. And homeowners weren't sure how they were going to fix the problem. Twenty years earlier, there had been a partial failure of the dam built by the original developer. But by the time the problem surfaced, the firm was in bankruptcy.

This time, property owners recognized, a quick fix wouldn't do. Eventually, the Ohio Water Development Authority came through with a $1.6 million loan for construction of a strengthened dam. Lot owners would pay it off with $350 payments each annually for the next 30 years.

To celebrate the event in early 2001, property owners invited local real estate agents to a celebration dubbed "Hot Dam, Let's Party."

Properties started to sell and values increased. Mr. Snyder, president of the property owners association, bought in 2000 with dam construction under way. "I smelled a deal," said the Perrysburg real estate executive.

"Had there been water in the lake all along, I'm sure the values would be higher than they are now," he added. "There will be a catch-up period and eventually we'll get to where we need to be."

Lake front lots average $20,000 to $30,000 when there are trees, about $15,000 without, said Phil Stotz, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Classic Properties in Montpelier.

Lakefront homes average $100,000 to $125,000, although some have brought in as much as $200,000. "On any other lake that would be a half-million dollar house," the real estate agent added. His current listing of lake front houses include properties priced at $105,000, $114,000, $220,000, $250,000, and $330,000.

He cautioned potential buyers, however, that a number of lots at Lake Seneca are too small or lack adequate soil conditions for a septic system. In such instances, it is usually impossible to obtain building permits. Owners sometimes hang onto these lots in the hope that the county will eventually order a community sewage system installed, he added.

JoAnn Wietecha, who with her husband, bought a year-round home at Lake Seneca last summer, is pleased with her find: A 1,950-square-foot house with 4 1/2 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths on a one-acre lot that includes 160 feet of lake frontage for just under $200,000.

"We were looking at Devil's Lake [in Manitou Beach, Mich.] but could never have afforded a house of this size with an acre of land."

Her husband drives 55 miles each way to a job in Toledo. "He tells people, 'It's not a long drive when this is what you're coming back to.' We love it here."

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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