Pilots' paradise

The streets have names like Cessna Lane and Piper Avenue.

In one yard, a model of a World War II-era F-4U Corsair fighter is mounted on a pole and acts as a windsock. In another, a mailbox is perched on an airplane landing gear.

They're not the only indications that Frontier Airpark is no ordinary subdivision.

For one thing, the focal point of the development isn't a park or community center — it's a 3,800-foot-long paved airstrip. There are taxiways in addition to streets; houses have hangars in addition to garages. Drivers dutifully obey street signs that warn them to yield to aircraft, moving aside as planes roll past.

Frontier Airpark is a community built around the proposition that a person's home is his castle — and airplane hangar.

Platted in 1982 and incorporated in 1985, Frontier Airpark is a gated, mile-square development several miles east of Marysville. The 105 families that live there share a way of life that's probably among the rarest in the Puget Sound area.

Rather than driving miles in traffic to reach an airport, Frontier residents walk out their doors to hangars, where pushing a remote-control garage-door button lets them back their airplanes — not their cars — out for a spin.

So when a bunch of neighbors decided one morning to go out for breakfast, they weren't headed to the local IHOP.

"About 21 of us flew up to Friday Harbor for breakfast in 10, 11 airplanes," said Randy Vranish, former president of the Frontier Airpark Owners Association. "It took 25 minutes from wheels up to wheels down."

One of the things that made the trip particularly pleasurable was that they flew out of what's probably one of the premier general-aviation airports in the state, with a newly repaved runway that has radio-operated landing lights so returning pilots can switch on the beacons when they're coming home after dark.

All this started when a group of developers began building the airpark more than 20 years ago. At first, it didn't go smoothly.

"It was just in the past six, seven years that it really took off," Vranish said. "It went through a couple of bankruptcies. It wasn't run well."

It also may have been an idea ahead of its time. In the early 1980s, the site about 50 miles from Seattle would have been considered remote. Since then, the economy has changed, Boeing has expanded operations at Paine Field in Everett, and private-plane ownership has increased.

The result is that the airpark has turned into a bucolic residential area that just happens to have its own airport.

The concept of residential airparks dates to the early 1940s, when an "air ranch" opened in Carmel, Calif., just before World War II. Now airparks range in size up to the 1,500-lot Spruce Creek airpark in Florida.

One of the main sources of information about airparks is in Washington state, where an organization called the Living With Your Plane Association was started in 1991 by Dave Sclair, former publisher of General Aviation News in Lakewood, Pierce County.

Sclair estimates there are at least 426 residential airparks in the United States. Florida ranks at the top of the list with 52; Washington is second with 50. California has 28, and Oregon has 23. Frontier is the only airpark in Snohomish County.

"Most people think of an airpark and everyone lives around the runway, and it's not quite like that," Vranish said.

For one thing, it's peaceful. Rather than having the noise and bustle often associated with airports, Frontier is in a swath of land of more than 600 acres with no shopping center, freeways or even through roads.

Each home is built on a 5-acre lot. The airstrip isn't even visible from many of the homes; taxiways provide access to the runway.

Vranish and his wife, Nedra, are typical of the people who live at the airpark. He was an Air Force pilot for 20 years, flying KC-135s with the Strategic Air Command. After retiring from the military, he joined the State Patrol and was based in Marysville.

"All I wanted was a 1,500-square-foot house with a shop," he said, but then he visited Frontier and walked out on the land where he and Nedra would later build their house.

"It's one of those things where you feel so at peace with the world, and that's the way it was."

Vranish built a house twice as big as the one he had contemplated, with a deck that looks into woods, where deer are a constant sight. His almost-finished hangar is across the driveway. Parked in his garage is — what else? — an airplane.

At Frontier, building an airplane in the garage is almost ordinary, and that love of aviation is one of the things that brings residents together. Vranish, 54, says that he's met nearly every family living at the airpark and has been in most of their homes.

"The difference in living here, maybe it's because it's an aviation community, but you drive around and I know just about everyone in every house," he said.

Resident Paul Lange, president of the Frontier Airpark Owners Association, "got the bug" and became a pilot through private instruction.

"I learned to fly in 1986, just for fun," he said. He used to own a 1948 Stinson Voyager that he commuted in to Boeing Field in Seattle, taking a bus for the final leg to work.

The Stinson has since been sold, and Lange now drives daily to work at Microsoft in Redmond.

As Vranish and Lange drive around the airpark, they show how well they know their neighbors, explaining that some work at Microsoft and others for airlines, someone else is a teacher and one resident is a lottery winner.

There's even a hint of the danger sometimes associated with flying. One of the houses for sale in the development, at more than $900,000, was built for a man who wanted a hangar big enough for his restored T-28, a single-engine former military trainer used in combat in Vietnam. The pilot had operated a Kirkland aviation business and died when the T-28 hit a California mountain.

A little farther along, however, is Kevin Vietzke, who runs an excavating company and, like Lange, simply got excited about flying.

"This was a dream of mine in grade school," he said. "I remember drawing a picture of a house and an airplane and a runway. Just as clear as a bell, that came back to me."

Vietzke's dream came true in 1979, when he got his private pilot's license.

He and his wife, Jennifer, began building their house in 1998 and moved in the next year. Now they have a 3½-month-old son, Matthew.

In the hangar is a perfectly kept 1965 Cessna 182 Skylane with a new engine, and Matthew recently made his first flight, going to Spokane to meet relatives.

"You just put the (child's) car seat in the back, like a car," Vietzke said.

Getting into this way of life is not extravagantly expensive, at least in terms of general Puget Sound housing costs.

Vranish says he paid $77,000 for his lot; a recent house sale was for $323,000. About a dozen lots remain unsold at prices around $150,000 and up, depending on whether a well and septic system have been installed. Other houses are commonly selling for around $450,000.

One of the factors affecting prices is whether the properties have "air rights," which means the owners are able to use the runway and taxiways.

Air rights are built into the price of the lots, adding perhaps $25,000 to $50,000 to the value of the property. After that, property owners pay annual dues of $500 with air rights and $250 without them. Eighty-five of the lots at the airpark include air rights, and Vranish estimates fewer than 25 percent of residents have airplanes.

The rest are between planes, building one or looking for one to buy, or just live at the airpark because they like the large lots and atmosphere.

"You'd think you'd hear this hubbub of aviation activity," Vranish said. "It's not like that at all. It's quiet. It's kind of like a little town."

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com.

On the Web

Frontier Airpark: www.frontierairpark.org

Living With Your Plane Association: www.livingwithyourplane.com