For more private pilots, home is where their plane is parked

John Hromoho and his wife, Juanita, are about to start constructing their dream home. It will be located in a charming part of the New Jersey countryside, near rustic red barns, a quaint little horse farm ... and an airport runway. While most homeowners complain about noisy airplane engines, the vroom of low-flying aircraft, says Mr. Hromoho, is "music to our ears."

It's music to the ears of an increasing number of recreational aviators, so enamored of flying they actually want to live with their planes. Just as avid golfers have golf-course communities and world travelers can purchase condominiums on a cruise ship, today's pilots have the option of living in residential airparks, neighborhoods built along landing strips. Each home comes with a hangar, and pilots can taxi from driveway to runway without ever having to get into a car and drive to the airport.

Residential airparks have proliferated in recent years. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but since the first opened in California more than 60 years ago, over 500 have been built, and in all but four states, says Dave Sclair, founder of Living With Your Plane (www.living withyourplane.com), an online airpark directory.

"It's like living with your hobby," says Hromoho.

Most airpark communities are located in warmer Southern states - Florida is a popular location - and in rural areas. Some are situated at airports where nonresident pilots are permitted to land their aircraft. Others reserve landing rights for residents only. They range in size from a few small houses near a landing strip to full neighborhoods with multimillion-dollar houses built near runways able to accommodate private jets.

Probably the most famous is Jumbolair Aviation Estates near Ocala, Fla. Run by former Revlon model and pilot Terri Jones-Thayer, Jumbolair has become something of an airpark for the rich and famous. One of the few facilities of its kind able to handle commercial airliners, it's where actor John Travolta parks a Boeing 707 and a Gulfstream jet beside his lavish home, which is next to a runway.

Being able to fly wherever and whenever one wants is downright liberating, says Michael Raichle, property manager of Aero Estates, a residential airpark in Lake Palestine, Texas.

"I live about 200 miles north of Houston, so I might fly over to Houston or Dallas, just anywhere; take off and go," says the retired commercial airline pilot.

On weekends, Mr. Raichle says, he frequently hops in his two-seat Piper Aero and flies a few hundred miles just for lunch. He moved to Aero Estates shortly after the airpark opened in 1987, and now counts 14 homes on the property. His neighbors include a teacher, a lawyer, and a truck driver: a fairly typical mix of residents, say residential airpark managers.

The joy of living close to one's plane is not the only reason for residing at an airpark. There are also powerful economic incentives, says Mr. Sclair.

An individual can spend several hundred dollars per month renting a hangar at a local airport. "If you take that money and make your house payment, you kill two birds with one stone," he says.

Airport owners also have a reason to build a residential development near their runways, says Kent Linn, owner of Sky Manor Airport in Hunterdon County, N.J., where Hromoho plans to build his home. He lays a blueprint out on a table at the airport restaurant and begins to explain his plans for a gated airpark community. Outside, the occasional airplane buzzes past the window as it taxis for takeoff. [Editor's note: The original version misnamed the county where the airport is located.]

No objections to the noise

Converting the land around an airport into a neighborhoodis excellent protection from the inevitable not-in-my-backyard syndrome that air traffic inevitably stirs in communities, he says After all, residents of an airpark are there by choice.

"It preserves the longevity of the airport," says Mr. Linn, a former McDonnell Douglas flight test engineer, who has owned Sky Manor Airport for more than 20 years.

He first conceived of building a residential airpark a decade ago, but lacked the space. In 1999, he purchased a neighboring 95-acre horse farm at a bankruptcy auction, as well as a nearby alfalfa field.

The horse farm, he says, will be preserved as open space, and the alfalfa field will be converted into 19 lots - currently selling for between $250,000 and $300,000, he says - on which buyers will be able to start constructing their new houses and hangars as early as the end of this summer.

Linn says he had to obtain a plethora of permits from a multitude of federal, state, and local agencies, a process that took nearly five years and cost roughly $2 million. At one point, the Environmental Protection Agency deemed the area to be a potential habitat for the endangered bog turtle.

Linn says he hired a wetlands expert for $10,000 to make sure it was not.

Airpark communities must scrupulously comply with all covenants, conditions, and restrictions placed upon them by regulatory agencies, says Michael Dworkin, a San Francisco-based aviation attorney.

A single tree allowed to grow too high could expose the entire community - from homeowners to the homeowners' association to the developer - to immense liability in the event of a crash.

Terrorist threat?

Safety and security have become touchy topics in residential airpark communities recently. Small, general-aviation airports are largely self-regulated, says Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. In a post-9/11 world, this has caused some homeland-security experts to suggest that they pose a potential security risk, as terrorists could steal a small plane and use it as a weapon.

Airpark residents are quick to counter this argument, saying their communities are far safer than most small airports because the airplanes are kept close to people's homes.

"All [small] airports are under pressure to curtail their activities or close," says Bill Fritsche, who operates Alexandria Field, an airpark situated three miles from Sky Manor. "We proved that these [airpark residents] are good people to have in your community."

"You could just as easily steal a cement truck and drive it into a bank," says Douglas Laird, an aviation security expert in Reno, Nev., who believes the terrorism threat has been overblown.

Still, all is not perfect in these neighborhoods for those well-off enough to afford a private plane.

Some people worry about the safety of airplanes and cars using the same streets. There has been at least one fatal accident involving a bicycler who collided with a plane, says Sclair.

Such matters seem far from the mind of David Maier, a real estate agent in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Although he does not own a plane and is not even a pilot yet, he recently purchased a plot of land at Holley Mountain Airpark in Arkansas.

There, he says, he plans to build his retirement home. "I am just a goober who's dreaming for 20 years from now," he says. "The world is your front door. It's really a neat deal."

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