It was seven years ago that Denny and Terry Nolen bought one square mile of land in Sahuarita, Ariz., about 25 minutes from Tucson. The property, which formerly was part of a cattle ranch operation, will now serve a higher purpose – literally – as an airfield surrounded by a housing development.
At residential airparks, also known as fly-in communities, home is where the runway is. These airparks allow aviators to take off and land very close to home and even park their planes on their own properties.
The central amenity at Ruby Star Airpark, which takes its name from the area’s cattle ranch, is a 4,300-foot-long airstrip that Denny says is probably big enough to land a Lear Jet. Ruby Star has 75 lots of at least eight acres apiece, and there are now five residents at the airpark.
“Others are feverishly getting their plans together,” said Nolen. “I’m over half sold out already.”
The Nolens are not alone. Residential airparks have been cropping up across the country, and now number in the hundreds.
Dave Sclair, president of the Living With Your Plane organization and publisher of General Aviation News, said there are about 500 residential airparks across the country listed in the association’s directory, and he guessed that there are 100 to 125 more that aren’t included in that list.
Living With Your Plane produces a newsletter, annual directory of airparks, and maintains a listing of airpark covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs), and a library of floor plans for homes with airplane hangars. The group serves as a resource for prospective developers and residents of airparks.
The development of these communities began after World War II, Sclair said, “But it has really taken off in the last 20 years, and we’ve seen increased interest and more intense interest since 9-11.”
Hangar costs and other facility costs at public airports, particularly near major cities, have jetted up in the past 10 years, he said, and that is one of the drivers for the growth in residential airparks. Flying enthusiasts can save money by building a home and a private hangar at a residential airpark.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Sclair said that a growing emphasis has been placed on airport and airplane security, and private pilots can keep better tabs on their aircraft when they’re parked in their own driveways.
“People who fly want to know that their airplane is secure. They want to know who’s around it. In a residential airpark, generally speaking, you know your neighbors, you know who’s near your hangar. It’s just a very secure feeling.”
Typically, airpark developers sell vacant lots and the buyers contract with a builder to construct a custom home and a private airplane hangar, Sclair said. Homeowners associations are common at residential airparks, and are useful in sharing maintenance costs for shared airpark facilities, such as insurance and the paving of the airstrip and taxiways.
Typically the residents are empty nesters, 45 and up, who are in the upper income brackets and are well-established in their careers. Residential airpark homes are typically primary residences for homeowners, though some airparks cater to the second-home and resort-home crowd.
The size of the developments can range from a handful of lots to over 1,000 lots, Sclair said, and the average size is 35-60 home sites. Lot sizes tend to range from three-quarters of an acre to five acres. Sclair said he receives about one inquiry a month from someone who is interested in developing a new residential airpark, and there is particular interest in the Sunbelt states.
Florida tops the list with about 50 airparks, Sclair said, while a handful of states – including Hawaii, South Dakota and Rhode Island – do not have any residential airparks.
Homes at residential airparks tend to sell for 10 percent to 25 percent more than comparable homes that are not part of an airpark, he said. Though because of the highly specialized audience, it can take a longer time to sell an airpark property.
“It’s a great way to live,” Sclair said. “You’re living in an area that has a lot of open space. You’re living in an area that is very quiet. You know all of your neighbors.” And your neighbors share a passion for flying.
While Sclair said it can be a joy to live at a residential airpark, some developers say they are not always a joy to build. “I would guess that the (approval process) has not gotten easier – it has gotten more complex,” Sclair said. “And the closer it is to a large city the more intense the permitting requirements.”
Nolen said the approval process for Ruby Star has been a bumpy ride. “It’s been a nightmare,” he said, blaming “county bureaucrats” and the Federal Aviation Administration for a lengthy process.
“It was kind of a struggle. It took a lot of hard work and sweat and wondering if it was ever going to catch fire. Finally it’s taking off in high gear – now it’s fun,” Nolen said.
While some airparks can only be used by the community’s own residents, Nolen said Ruby Star will be open to other pilots, too. “This is a friendly airpark. We want people to stop and visit and go. At (some) other airparks you can’t even go there without a specific invitation. We welcome everybody.”
Illene Wood, a broker for Outback Realty Inc. who is selling lots for the 299-unit Western Sky airpark near Salome, Ariz., said that project will also feature a public airstrip accessible by aircraft weighing up to 12,000 pounds. Wood earlier worked to sell lots at another residential airpark, called Indian Hills.
Wood said that many airpark residents seem interested in the warm weather in Arizona. “They are coming from different areas where it’s too cold to fly in the wintertime. They are mostly living here in the winter months. A lot of them are retired,” she said.
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