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June 13, 2018

Developer, broker, buyers finding magic at Smithfield camps

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Freeport developer Matt Wogan bought Sunset Cottages on North Pond in Smithfield in 2016, and is selling the cabins and other units as condos.

SMITHFIELD — Matt Wogan wasn't looking for a central Maine lakeside property with nearly two-dozen century-old camps when he came across Sunset Cottages on the internet two years ago.

"It was accidental," the Freeport developer said.

"I was there within 48 hours [after seeing it on the internet]," he said of the group of cabins and other buildings on North Pond in Smithfield's village. Then, "I made an offer within 48 hours of seeing them [in person]."

There's a little magic, it turns out, to Sunset Cottages.

Lisa Rizzo's family first came up from South Portland in 1974, when she was 11. She and her three siblings also came for 18 straight years as adults.

"It was a week no one would miss."

When owners Ellie and Mike Zarcone closed Sunset Cottages and put the property up for sale in 2016, Rizzo and her siblings were bereft.

When she heard the cabins were being sold as condos last year, she went to Smithfield to see for herself.

"I made an offer the day I was here."

She's not the only one. The 22 properties — 17 cabins, three condos in one building and two houses — went on the market separately as condos last fall and 10 were sold within three months. Five of those buyers used to vacation at Sunset Cottages, which is in the Belgrade Lakes region, in between Belgrade and Norridgewock, about 20 miles north of Augusta.

The condos were taken off the market for the winter and put back on this spring. More are now under contract.

Real estate broker Dawn Klein said she was surprised to sell so many so fast.

"There was so much construction going on," she said. "Dump trucks, paint crews, CMP. It wasn't a nice peaceful showing. But people saw the potential."

Authentic, rustic, blank slates

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
'The Twins,' center, on the canal at Sunset Cottages, are among 22 properties for sale or sold at the Smithfield site.

Wogan, owner of Mainelife Homes, develops and builds custom houses. He also recently bought and plans to renovate two 200-plus-year old North Yarmouth Academy buildings in Yarmouth.

The Sunset Cottages project is different from his other projects. He estimated he put $150,000 to $200,000 into the property. He raised the cabins off their slabs and painted them a deep dark green, put all the overhead wires underground, improved septic and wells and added more, dredged the canal and took down a building.

But the units themselves are being sold unrenovated. Most aren't winterized, and while they have running water and toilets, most also don't have showers.

What they do have is either private lakefront property, canal-front property or a boat slip, access to a large lakefront common area and private lawns.

Once all the property is sold, it'll be owned by the cabin owners and two homeowners' associations, the north side and the south side, separated by the canal and a covered pedestrian bridge.

The cabins range from the $64,500 for each of the "twins," two 250-square-foot houses on the canal, to $129,000. There are three winterized units in one building that are listed for $84,500 each. They're listed by Klein at Lakehome Group, in Belgrade Lakes.

One owner bought the former snack shack on the beach and renovated it into an impressive two-story vacation house.

"We're not selling them as something they're not," Wogan said. "They're authentic, though, and they work for people. There's a history here, and something about it that people love.".

Many of the owners are renovating, winterizing and adding showers and other amenities.

"We're really pleased with the remodels," Wogan said. "And the folks who have bought them are great."

A century of summer history

Courtesy / Smithfield Historical Society
Courtesy / Smithfield Historical Society
The beach at Sunset Cottages has long been a summer destination. The water toboggan was lost in a 1941 storm.

Sunset Cottages is on what was once the site of the Simonds Hotel. The hotel burned in 1913, along with 22 other village buildings, and Ray Groves bought the land. Between 1914 and 1941, he built 19 of the cottages, according to a 2004 Smithfield Historical Society article. He also dragged his own cabin across North Pond from Rome, and it became Hillcrest, one of the cabins that's still for sale. In 1932, he built a 50-foot-high water toboggan, which was destroyed in a 1941 storm.

The Zarcones bought the camp in 1974, and added a three-story water slide, among other things. The water slide eventually was removed because of liability, according to the article.

Rizzo's parents first brought her and her siblings to Sunset Cottages in 1974, because they couldn't afford to go anywhere else.

When the family got there, the beach, which was the only public one in the area, was packed. The cabins were rustic. It was a hot day and the dog had thrown up in the car, but there was no shower in the cabin to clean up. Her mother wanted to go home.

Her father, however, convinced her mother to at least let the kids swim.

They stayed, and the family, three girls and a boy, came up every year after that, until her parents divorced. As adults, the four siblings started coming once a year, initially at the urging of their brother.

When the Zarcones closed the property and put it on the market in 2016, Rizzo's brother made them all signs for Christmas, "Beach Haven," the name of the cabin they rented every year, to remind them of the place they used to go. They never thought they'd see Sunset Cottages again.

'Something magical in coming here'

Photo / Maureen Mlilliken
Photo / Maureen Mlilliken
Lisa Rizzo and her siblings, who have a history at Sunset Cottages, bought four cabins overlooking the lake.

"It represented for the four of us everything good about family," Rizzo said as she sat on the porch of her cabin last week. "We laughed and played, we swam, we went roller skating."

Every year, they'd take a photo by the water, and the group grew in size as they got married, had kids.

"We're a family and we haven't been without our struggles, but there was something magical in coming here for us. It was one time all year when we didn't care about problems."

When Rizzo heard the cabins were for sale, she convinced her siblings, including a sister in California, to each buy one. Now the four siblings have four cabins lined up on a rise overlooking the lake.

Rizzo's cabin was already finished when she bought it. She has Parkinson's, and a renovation would have been too much, but her siblings are renovating theirs. Her brother, a firefighter, is doing his himself with the help of buddies from his department.

"When we get together now, we sit and say 'Oh wow, can you believe it?' I'm not sure we've gotten over it yet."

Rizzo, who divorced years ago and came to the cabins as a single mother with two kids, has a sanctuary group for women and plans to rent her sister's next-door cabin for women in her group.

Her children are 26 and 28 now, and she lives in Portland, but said she'll be in Smithfield as often as possible, if nothing else to sit on the porch with a glass of wine and watch the sunset.

"I consider this a wonderful gift, a gift from God," she said.

A place on a lake

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Property owners at Sunset Cottages who don't have water frontage get their own boat slip at the dock on North Pond.

Klein, the real estate agent, also feels the magic at work.

"I have never taken so many pictures of a sunset in my life," she said.

She said Wogan seeing the property, then buying it, was a stroke of luck.

"Who knows what would have happened to it?" she said. "It was in bad shape. It needed someone to love it."

She's impressed with the work he did on infrastructure to make it saleable. The work paid off, even before it was done. When she'd have a showing, people wanted to see the ones that weren't listed, too, and some of those were among the first sold.

"They're pretty campy inside, but most people want to make them year-round anyway," she said.

She said buyers aren't deterred by the rustic interiors.

Buyers are from all over Maine, but also live in New Hampshire, Florida and Rizzo's sister in California.

"It gives people an opportunity to afford waterfront property at a reasonable price," she said. "It's making some dreams come true and it shows. They really can't believe it.

"'It's a really special time for me when we have closings for people who never thought they'd own a place on a lake."

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