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When aviation enthusiast Lenny Sikora is in the mood for fresh snapper at his favorite seafood restaurant, he and his girlfriend hop in a golf cart at his home at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo for a quick drive to the community’s private airport. In no time, Sikora is at the controls hovering 500 feet in the air aboard his Robinson R-44 helicopter and then flying south across the Florida Keys to dinner in Marathon. About a half hour later, the couple is ordering their first course.
Sikora is among an elite group of homeowners who live the aviation lifestyle in a fly-in community. Since semi-retiring and buying property at the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in 2004 where he lives eight months of the year, the private pilot has been enjoying the perks a private airport affords: flying on a whim to destinations around the United States, the Bahamas and beyond.
“We throw our fold-up bicycles in the back seats [of the helicopter] and bike around in these areas. We travel to the Bahamas with it about six times a year, that’s what we really enjoy. We can be in Bimini in about 30 minutes or the Out Islands in about 2 hours,” Sikora says.
The first airpark opened in California in 1941, but it was after World War II that the concept took off with the availability of decommissioned military airstrips. What began as modest communities with grass airstrips in rural areas has morphed, in some cases, into upscale developments with country club amenities. Today airparks are located on all points of the globe, from South Africa and New Zealand to Canada and Thailand. Airparks in the United States alone number some 600.
The Ocean Reef Club, a waterfront development on 2,500 acres, is serviced by its own 4,456-foot lighted runway. Some 200 members have their own aircraft– “everything from helicopters to amphibious to private jets”–and an equal number have fractional jet relationships, according to Russell Post of Sotheby’s International Realty in Key Largo. The average property is $1.7 million. “Our members are from over 40 states and 27 countries. They can fly off with their kids, their pets and be on their yacht five minutes after they land,” he says.
There are, of course, unique issues to consider when purchasing a fly-in property. Aircraft access is one. Some airparks like Ocean Reef offer traditional estates, villas and condominium housing options while other parks feature homes with attached hangars. The ability to garage a Piper or Cessna on one’s own property means going from kitchen to hangar to airborne in a flash.
Is the runway paved or natural? What kinds of aircrafts can it accommodate? Who owns and manages it? What are the noise abatement procedures? The size of the runway and the home’s proximity to it also come into play in determining the property’s price and desirability. Brokers report a premium for sales of home located closer to the runway.
In Alpine, Wyoming, a premier fly-in community called the Refuge AirRanch is a gated, 65-acre development with taxiway access to a 6,000-foot runway. The complex is set in a mountain valley surrounded by natural parks, forests and rivers, all of which represent “recreational-rich opportunities,” for pilots, says Brandon Spackman of Jackson Hole Sotheby’s International Realty. Wyoming is also a tax-friendly state to boot. The development offers newly constructed homes and hangars as well as lots for new-builds. Prices for a parcel and a hangar start at $1.2 million. “Like any real estate, there are preferred lots that are determined by runway proximity, views, privacy and water. Streams and ponds are located throughout the development,” says Brandon. ‘The demographic is very broad but they all share a passion for aviation,” and, he adds, a love for a community “which is very lifestyle-focused.” Buyers tend to zero in on the hangar size even before the size of their home. As one real estate insider says, “the comfort of the plane often comes first.”
The fly-in lifestyle is one of freedom and convenience, fantasy and camaraderie. They are homeowners who have a passion for all things aviation, which typically results in immediate bonding and a special connection among neighbors who like nothing better than sharing tales of the sky.
Meanwhile Lenny Sikora is on his second home at the Ocean Reef Club. “The private airport was and is one of the main things about Ocean Reef that has attracted and kept me here,” he says. “Combined with all the other amenities that we have here and our climate, it is, I believe, one of the best places in the country to live.”