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Clean up begins at blighted property on Old Auburn after sale of home

House, cleanup, wheeler
Clean-up work at the old Wheeler House in Citrus Heights has begun, following the sale of the home earlier this month. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
After an official change in ownership was finalized last Friday, things have been rapidly changing at the run-down property at the corner of Old Auburn Road and Mariposa Avenue. A debris box is now placed in front of the home, boards on the windows and doors have been removed, piles of items have been hauled out, and a video surveillance system has been installed.

Thomas Szymoniak, whose family owns the Pumpkin Farm next door, is the new owner of the home and 2.7-acre chunk of land it sits on. According to the broker associate who handled the transaction, it was purchased for $407,000 through the probate process, following the death of James Wheeler, who lived at the home until last year. The prominent corner location had long-been an eyesore after weeds and vegetation became overgrown and the home visibly deteriorated.

Wearing a respirator mask and gloves, the new owner could be seen hauling items out of the home along with a few helpers over the weekend. A look inside one of the open windows revealed a completely trashed interior and a strong odor of mold.

“We’re just trying to clean up the blight right now,” said Syzmoniak, who was contacted by The Sentinel on Saturday at the property. “We may be able to save the house; just have to get into it right now to see what we’re dealing with.”

He described the interior as “kind of a house of horrors,” noting the roof had been leaking for years and the place had been ransacked inside, apparently by homeless. He also said hundreds of old magazines and memorabilia had been found inside, calling it “like a time-warp into the 1940s and 50s.”

The old documents and memorabilia drew the interest of the Citrus Heights Historical Society, who had several members spend part of their weekend sifting through boxes of old items from the home, including its president, Larry Fritz.

Rifling through boxes at the site on Saturday, Fritz said it was a “neat opportunity to salvage and preserve the area’s history.” Among his finds were several photos of the Wheeler family, who reportedly built the home, and a 1932 expense journal that he said had financials “documented down to the penny,” including church contributions, groceries, and other expenses. He noted it was from the Great Depression era, when money was scarce.

With what is hoped to be a treasure trove of historical collections from the home, Fritz said he’s looking forward to having an exhibit with items from the Wheeler house on display at future Historical Society events. He’s also hopeful the home, built around 1940, will be able to be preserved and restored.

“I’m glad it’s part of the Pumpkin Farm and they seem dedicated to really preserving the look and character of the area,” said Fritz. “It’s one of the more rural areas which has that farm, sprawling character.”

As various memorabilia and boxes of old documents and magazines are pulled out of the home, Szymoniak said he’s “not planning to throw anything out” and will be checking eBay to see what items might be able to be sold.

Asked about future plans for the property, Szymoniak said he was focusing on resolving immediate issues like the red tag on the property for health and safety hazards. He said “we’re working with the city” about potential options, but did not list any specific plans other than to say he was “certainly not planning to develop and put new houses on it.”

He also said it remains to be seen whether the adjacent Pumpkin Farm will expand onto the newly acquired property. For now, he said immediate plans are to clean up the home and property this year and make it weatherproof, with a new roof if the building can be saved, and then finish up with more improvements next year.

“It’s probably on the top 10 ‘most wanted’ blight properties in the city,” he said. “So, trying to get it off that list.”

Szymoniak, whose family name is also sometimes spelled “Shymoniak,” said his family moved to Citrus Heights from Canada in 1972, where they bought the 12-acre Pumpkin Farm property at 7736 Old Auburn Rd. and he attended school across the street at Holy Family. His father, known by many as “Farmer Leonard,” headed up the farm’s operations until he passed away last year.

Asked whether the Pumpkin Farm’s annual attractions will continue, Szymoniak said the family is “hoping to continue for a while at least,” and confirmed the farm will open again later this year in October.

While at a “Coffee with a Councilman” event held on Saturday morning at a local coffee house, Citrus Heights Councilman Albert Fox said he was aware that the Szymoniak family had purchased the old Wheeler home, but said he hadn’t been told of any specific plans for the property, beyond addressing “all the safety issues first.”

Fox, who lives nearby the property, told The Sentinel he had watched it deteriorate over the years and said “it’ll be exciting to see what happens in the future.”

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