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Little to luxurious: Home building booms in Milton

Lake Milton is home to McMansions

Milton Township zoning inspector Michael Kurilla Jr. stands along the west shore of Lake Milton with a view behind him of large homes along the northeast shore. BELOW: The home being built on Countyline Road for auto dealership owner John Kufleitner....Staff photo / Ed Runyan

LAKE MILTON — Small mansions have been going up along the shores of Lake Milton since $20 million in sewer and water projects came to the western Mahoning County community about 15 years ago. But for some reason, it has gone bananas so far this year.

Michael Kurilla Jr., the Milton Township zoning inspector, said the first four months of this year have been unlike anything he’s seen in his more than 35-year career in the business. Lake Milton is in Milton Township on the western edge of Mahoning County.

“We shake our head. It’s just amazing,” Kurilla said.

The housing market around Lake Milton has been strong since 2017 when 14 new homes in the township were built at a cost averaging $309,000 per home, not counting the land cost. The numbers remained strong last year with 15 homes averaging $438,000 each.

But out of nowhere, buyers, builders, Realtors and others have poured into the township hall just east of the lake this year to meet with Kurilla.

“You can’t keep up,” he said. “I would say this year is going to be the peak of this residential housing boom we are seeing.”

During the first 4 1/2 months of this year, Kurilla has approved 15 zoning permits for single-family homes. Their average cost is $364,179. The first five permits were $432,000, $302,000, $553,000, $540,000 and $433,000. More recently a permit was granted for a home costing nearly $1.06 million.

According to Realtor.com, the median sale price of a home in Mahoning County last month was $124,900. The figure is $126,800 in Trumbull County and $128,300 in Columbiana County.

INTERESTING HISTORY

Lake Milton has an interesting history. It was created with the construction of the Lake Milton dam in 1913 to hold back water from the Mahoning River needed by the steel industry in Youngstown.

The Youngstown-owned lake became a popular summer attraction in the 1930s. In Craig Beach, the town on the west shore, 17-year-old Dino Crocetti of Steubenville performed for the first time at the Craig Beach Dance Hall, according to the Ohio Historical Society and Craig Beach website. He later went on to fame as Dean Martin. But the beach town also had an amusement park with a roller coaster. The amusement park closed during the Great Depresssion.

Youngstown owned the lake until about 1986, when the dam badly needed repairs, according to Lake Milton resident Paul Wolf, who was head of an association of Lake Milton residents for many years. Youngstown’s then-Mayor Pat Ungaro threatened to let out the water, and the state provided money for repairs, which required the lake to be drained from 1986 to 1988. When the repairs were finished, the lake filled back up. The state also took over the lake and turned it into a state park.

The newfound stability of the lake under state control led to construction of water and sewer lines starting around 1990, which helped develop the northeast part of the lake, Wolf said. That led to cottages being turned into year-round homes, Kurilla said.

A 10,700-square-foot lakefront home on Countyline Road built by Alliance auto dealer Wally Armour in 2001 cost more than $1 million. It sold in 2017 for $1.8 million.

“In the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, you had modest 700-, 800-, 900-foot cottages basically, people coming out to enjoy the recreational activities,” Kurilla said. “Then you started having really substantial square footage houses, which are the lakefront houses.”

The $20 million of water and sewer projects took place from 2005 to 2007, according to the Mahoning County Sanitary Engineer’s Office. They served served much more of the lakefront areas, Wolf said.

About four years ago, residential construction started to increase, both in the number of homes and the cost, according to data from Kurilla and the county building inspection department.

Because of the size, cost and appearance of many of the new homes that have gone up since 2017, some people have dubbed them “McMansions.” A drive around the lake shows many new homes being constructed, and most are impressive to see. The lakefront lots typically are small, but one way around that is to build deep instead of wide and to add multiple stories.

Kurilla had a long career as Austintown Township zoning inspector but became part-time Milton Township zoning inspector in 2013.

“When I started (with Milton Township) there wasn’t really that much activity here. But just in the last (few) years for some reason, this is taking off,” he said of home construction.

Kurilla said three types of development are occuring: lakefront development (estimated 25 percent of the total), homes in subdivisions (50 percent) and homes in agricultural areas near the lake (25 percent).

“I spent 29 years in Austintown, and I’m finishing my eighth year (in Milton Township), and I have never seen a jump start like this in the first quarter of a calendar year,” Kurilla said.

“In January, we had five right out of the box. In February we had two. Another one in March, four in April and three in May so far,” he said of permits for new homes.

“We shake our head. We’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just amazing,” Kurilla said.

“When I started in 2013 here, lakefront lot cost (was) in the $150,000 to $175,000 range depending on what part of the lake it was. In November of last year, we had a lot sell for $525,000, just the lot,” he said. It is a 90-foot wide lakefront site.

Asked why the big increase now, Kurilla said low interest rates is his only answer. He noted that construction costs have risen considerably since COVID-19 hit, but it hasn’t stopped the flow of new homes in the township. “You would think that would be a depressing factor, but the ultimate driving factor is favorable, low interest rates.”

He said a couple of people have purchased property in the township but plan to wait a while to build, hoping materials costs will decline.

REALTOR’S PERSPECTIVE

Realtor Connie Tarr, who lived at Lake Milton for 18 years, said water, sewer and natural gas lines opened up residential development and eliminated lake contaminants.

“Once the sewer lines were in, those little cottages that were worth $20,000 now became vacant parcels worth $100,000,” she said. “People were now able to build mini McMansions on lots that were 200 by 300 or 200 by 400. Without sewer, you can’t do that. You can’t do it with septic systems.”

The Wally Armour home, the first “McMansion,” set an example, Tarr said.

“After that, the boom just took off. Everybody wanted to have a summer home. Plus there were influential people out there,” she said, mentioning the mall-developer Cafaro family as an example. “Everybody wants to say, ‘I live near the Cafaros,'” she said.

“Plus now the lake was clean again. You could swim in it. That’s what started the Lake Milton craze. Not only that, it’s a recreational lake, which means there is no limit on boat motor sizes. And they have to keep (the lake) at maximum water level for recreational purposes.”

Tarr’s research indicates that since May 2017, four homes at Lake Milton have sold for more than $1 million, the most expensive one being Armour’s home. Another four homes sold for between $570,000 to $800,000 during that time.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the median home sales price in the United States this year through April was $329,100, a record-breaking increase of 17 percent from last year.

Tarr, of eXp Realty, said the real estate market is “crazy” in more places than just Lake Milton.

“We are getting 10 to 15 offers on every house,” she said of real estate throughout the Mahoning Valley. “We are having buyers waive appraisals, home inspections and offering more cash over and above what it appraises for because of the multiple offer situation. I’ve been in the business 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She agrees that the low interest rates are the reason.

“When you have a young couple and they can get 2.5 percent interest rate, you can now buy a $160,000 house and have the same payment as you would have had at 5 percent five years ago for a $100,000 house,” she said. She said young professionals are the demographic most likely to buy.

“For every $150,000 home that goes up for sale, there are 10 to 20 offers on it within 48 hours. That drives up the sales price.”

Tarr said other Mahoning County communities may have a higher volume of sales than Lake Milton, but the prices are always higher on waterfront property.

“The people buying at Lake Milton are buying a lifestyle. It is its own entity. If you’ve got a big house, you want a big boat,” she said.

Tarr said she thinks COVID-19 “changed the way people think” about where they want to live.

“They’ve spent more time with their family. They are doing a different type of vacationing. They are doing less traveling. So they start thinking, ‘Let’s look at a cottage at Lake Milton or Geneva’ or ‘let’s spend more time with the kids.’ They spent some time with their family and really started to find out what’s going on in children’s lives. It all goes into why is it so desirable to live near the water,” she said.

BUILDING STATS

Jeff Uroseva, chief building official for Mahoning County, provided statistics from building permits dating back to 2016, which confirm that residential construction in Milton Township has boomed since 2017, rising from five permits in 2016 to 15 in 2020.

When comparing the number of new homes being built in Mahoning County overall to Milton Township, both have gone up since 2016, county statistics show.

The number of building permits for the entire county have been steady from 2016 to 2020, rising to 160 in 2018, dropping to 133 in 2019 and rising back to 150 in 2020. Milton Township had a low of five building permits in 2016 then rose to 14 the following year and has remained at 14 or 15 through 2020.

Urseva pointed out that Milton is not typically the leader in the number of new family homes built each year. That distinction usually goes to Canfield Township.

Canfield Township zoning-permit data shows 30 building permits for homes in 2016 and 31 in 2020. Canfield Township had 17 zoning permits through May 11.

The county approved nine building permits for homes in the city of Canfield in 2016 and three each in 2017 and 2018, but the number dropped to one per year in 2019 and 2020. There has been one so far this year.

“Canfield Township always wins as far as being the hottest spot in the county,” Ureseva said. “I wouldn’t say Milton is the hot spot. Milton is very selective. It’s people who want to live on a lake.”

County data shows 150 building permits were issued in Mahoning County in 2020, but that is a fraction of the number that were built around 2007 to 2008, prior to the Great Recession.

“We were doing 700 houses a year. Will we ever get back to there? I doubt it very much … Unless we have a lot of industry come in this area. Maybe Lordstown Motors, the battery plant, those good-paying jobs coming back. That maybe brings back the need for more housing stock.”

Craig Beach, which averaged one or two new house each year from 2016 to 2020, seems to be having a good year also with two new building permits so far this year.

BUILDER’S PERSPECTIVE

Mark Ramunno, of Custom Design Homes by Mark Ramunno of North Lima, said Columbiana has become a Mahoning Valley hot spot for new homes because of available land and tax incentives being offered in the city.

“Canfield (Township) and Columbiana, that’s where really all the growth is,” he said. “They have brand-new neighborhoods with brand-new streets. You don’t have that at Lake Milton. You have old roads with old cottages where people are tearing them down and building McMansions on them.

“Ten years ago I had a customer pay $265,000 for a dump (home) and we tore it down and built a $600,000 house. So he basically paid about $260,000 for a piece of land — waterfront with dock rights.”

“Columbiana has only been booming because they have that tax abatement for 15 years,” he said. “You go to the Columbiana school district and buy a lot to build, you have no property taxes for 15 years, and it really spurred a lot of activity that was never there before.”

Ramunno mostly builds homes in areas such as Canfield, Poland, Ellsworth and Columbiana, he said.

He estimates the cost of a house has gone up 20 to 25 percent since COVID-19 hit more than a year ago because of the higher cost of building materials and labor.

“So a $400,000 house is $500,000,” he said. “Because there is a shortage of labor, the labor costs have gone up, but the bigger increase is in material.”

LONGTIME RESIDENT

Wolf was president for 12 years of the Lake Milton Association, which supports the interests of Lake Milton residents. He has owned his property since the 1980s, when it was a summer cottage. He has lived there full time since 2001.

In 1986, before the state took over the lake, the city sold Wolf the property on which his cottage rested. “For most of these places, there was no septic system.” People used holding tanks, but sewage was “polluting the lake,” he said.

That led to the first sewers being constructed around 1990 along Northeast River Road, he said. An additional $20 million of projects completed in 2005, 2006 and 2007 extended water and sewer lines on the east and west sides of the lake, including about 1,300 homes in Milton and Jackson townships and Craig Beach, according to Vindicator files.

Wolf said there are “different trains of thought” among Lake Milton residents about the development of so many expensive homes in the past two decades.

“A lot of people are concerned about property taxes,” he said. “Our property taxes are extremely high. I think a lot of them feel if they are going to pay a lot for their property taxes, they want something for their money.

“If I am sitting in the middle of million-dollar homes, I guess my taxes are going to reflect that,” he said. “I think the majority of people are happy to live here. That’s why we keep getting more and more people coming out here.”

erunyan@vindy.com

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