Rural airpark feels pinch as developers move in

LAKE STEVENS – It’s one of the sure signs of spring in Snohomish County: the buzz of a single-engine airplane.

After a long winter – too long, pilots say – eclectic planes are poking their propellers out of hangars at Frontier Air Park, a 600-acre neighborhood wrapped happily around a 2,600-foot runway.

In just seven minutes, pilot Beau Walker can go from strolling out his front door to plying the skies in his 1974 Citabria two-seater.

“Some of the prettiest flying is early in the morning,” said Walker, who is retired from fixing and selling computers. “The air is very still, the sun is coming up. It’s very pleasant to take off and fly up toward the mountains. Everything is brand new again.”

Even as pilots stretch their wings for another season of fair-weather flying, they worry about how much longer their way of life will last.

They watch as neighborhoods engage in open warfare against airplane noise at Paine Field and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

As land values soar, development follows, putting a crimp on rural life.

Any boost in traffic and people can lead to more conflict over noise, and whether cars or planes should dominate the neighborhood landscape inside the park.

The Snohomish County Council wants to protect the airpark because it’s the only one in the county.

“It’s a pilot’s paradise,” said Scott Sutton, who pilots an unmistakable bright yellow 1978 Grumman Cheetah.

Frontier Air Park shares a popular legacy of mixing homes and hangars that stretches back to Fresno, Calif., in 1945.

Today there are 565 airparks across the country, most of them in Florida. Washington has 55, said Dave Sclair, retired publisher of General Aviation News and editor of the Web site

It’s been about 20 years since some of the first homes were built in Frontier Air Park.

The airpark had a hard time getting off the ground.

It faced lawsuits from neighbors over noise, developer bankruptcies and wetlands across many of the properties.

All that was settled by the mid-1990s with the help of housing developer Hank Robinett. Since then, homes gradually have been built on all but a handful of the 117 properties.

“I think it’s the best private airport in the area,” Robinett said.

Runway rights are limited to 85 property owners, and there are only about 40 planes in the park.

Frontier Air Park has the barest fraction of flights compared with Paine Field and Sea-Tac, with maybe three dozen takeoffs and landings on the sunniest of days.

“We create very little noise here,” said Miriam Rorig-Low, president of the Frontier Air Park Owners Association.

Still, as housing developments stretch farther east to tame once-thick forests just outside the park, new residents are moving in who might not be ready for an overhead alarm clock.

“Growth around airparks is not a good thing,” Sutton said.

The community faces an “uphill challenge in the long term to maintain our way of life out there as we have it right now,” resident Jim Curry said.

The park is home to vintage and military aircraft, including at least one biplane, owned by aviation lovers who include Boeing workers and airline retirees.

It’s the love of aviation that draws most to live at the park. A B-247 – Boeing’s first modern passenger airliner – is silhouetted on the park’s security gate. A stretch of mailboxes has a metal-cast airplane weathervane perched on top.

A sign near the entrance announces when a “fly-out” is planned, the equivalent of neighbors piling into a couple of station wagons for a picnic.

Big, fancy homes and hangars perch on 5-acre lots alongside timberland, hillsides and wetlands.

It’s becoming premium real estate.

Upwards of $10 million in homes and land in the airpark has changed hands in the past two years, according to a Herald computer analysis. The highest sales price yet was $800,000 a year ago, according to the county assessor’s office.

“Every time someone sells, the price goes up and attracts a different buyer,” Walker said.

Overall, the homes, hangars and land in the airpark have an assessed value of about $40 million, according to the analysis.

A milestone is in the works: A $1 million house is on the market inside the airpark and is proof again of rising home and property values in the county, residents said.

The airpark is a tight-knit community where neighbors throw parties to celebrate Christmas and Halloween together.

“It’s a fun community,” said Rorig-Low, owners association president and a flight instructor. She’s lived in the park for 10 years with her husband, Bruce Low, a Boeing mechanic.

She flies a 1953 Beechcraft Bonanza, with a signature V-shaped tail.

The love of planes isn’t the only sign of a pioneer spirit. There’s no cable TV, no sewer lines and no city water in the airpark. People live on septic tanks and wells.

You can’t beat having your airplane parked in your own hangar, Rorig-Low said.

Signs throughout the park warn drivers that they may come face to face with a propeller. Planes taxi on paved paths, but also share the roads with cars.

A pizza deliveryman once found himself accidentally driving around on the runway.

That’s against the rules, which set aside the runway and paved taxiways for planes only.

Even kids on bikes in the neighborhood know to yield to a taxiing airplane.

Not so with all drivers. Once, a young driver rounded a corner to face the propeller of Walker’s two-seater. After some initial confusion, the driver backed down and learned an important lesson, Walker said: Airplanes can’t go backward.

The potential clash between cars and planes was front and center last year. Park residents were upset when one resident applied to build an additional house on his 5-acre lot.

More homes means more traffic, said residents opposed to shrinking the size of lots and adding homes.

The proposal fell through, but Rorig-Low and others worry that development pressure will continue.

“It was the camel’s nose in the tent,” she said. “Things will never stay the same, and there’s always pressure to develop. There will be additional pressure to subdivide these lots.

“We have to ask, ‘How as a community do we want to go forward?’ “

Future development in the airpark is limited by wetlands, septic tanks and access to well water, Rorig-Low said. Even so, urban development brings water and sewer lines closer and closer, she said.

Outside the airpark’s fences, hundreds of homes are being proposed and approved under county rules allowing clusters of homes on rural land.

After lobbying from park residents, the Snohomish County Council last week launched a research effort into limiting further development inside the park.

“It’s a unique development up there, and we want to work to make sure the integrity of the airpark is protected,” County Councilman John Koster said.

Also, the council asked whether new homebuyers outside the park should be warned that they’re in the flight path of a few dozen planes.

Walker has already tried without success. Others have worked with developers on the same issue.

Robinett, the park’s builder, said warnings aren’t needed and would be a waste of tax money. He said much of the rural housing in that area is set.

“It’s in an area that’s never going to be high-density as far as people around it,” he said.

And he doesn’t want anyone chipping away at rules that allow clusters of houses on rural land. He praised the rules, which he used to allow more houses per acre so long as open space is set aside.

He is hopeful about the park’s future.

“I think it’ll survive,” Robinett said. “It’ll be a very pricey place to live in the future, because it will be very difficult to ever replace it. There is going to be value there, like waterfront or view property. It hasn’t come into its total appreciated value yet.

“The prices will continue to go up there because of the location and the ability to own your own aircraft. General aviation is coming back.”

Herald writer Scott North contributed to this story.

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or

  • Gated neighborhood of 600 acres and117 properties.

  • Runway: 2,600 feet plus 1,000 feet of paving for overruns.

  • Streets: 50-foot-wide swaths so cars can share the space with taxiing airplanes.

    For pictures of vintage, military and commercial planes at the airpark, go to

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