Clearance for Landing: A controversial private airpark northwest of Duluth is not flying with nearby residents

January 18, 2019

Ryan Swanson

Zenith News


Superior Aero Estates, the development company owned by Washington DC consultant Nick Clattenburg, is building a residential airpark at Highway 53 and Highway 8, 18 miles northwest of Duluth.


A residential airpark is a gated “fly-in” community, usually built in rural areas with plenty of land. Each home has its own hangar, with plots connected to a central road and a small nearby airstrip for takeoff and landing.


Clattenberg, a former Cirrus employee and current contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration, lists six of the 20 residential plots as already sold.  


An August 5 story about the airpark in the Duluth News Tribune included a graphic that incorrectly identified the location as the junction of Highway 47, about four miles farther north than it really is—a crucial point, since location is key to the controversy the project has generated.


Residential airparks are usually privately owned and restricted to homeowners and their guests. They’ve become a niche real estate market, with companies dedicated solely to their construction. On the high end, fly-in communities feature amenities, such as golf courses and equestrian facilities, but businesses that typically capitalize on a nearby airfield are usually not built around these kinds of private communities.


Although private airplane owners certainly aren’t impoverished, they aren’t necessarily among the super-rich either. A small, single-engine jet costs about $15,000 upfront and about $200 per flight hour, accounting for fuel, insurance, maintenance—and, of course, some place to store it, which can be one of the larger ongoing expenses, making the option of residential airparks attractive.


Cloquet already has a private airstrip, sans one home, clustered off Stark Road. Farther south, Lino Lakes has a classic east-west airstrip replete with houses nestled up against the development.


Clattenburg’s plan for Superior Aero Estates is ambitious, requiring permission to build from local, state, and federal authorities as well as affected property owners.


The St. Louis County Planning and Community Development Department, the Public Works Department, Grand Lake Township, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have all signed off on the project, which is under construction even before gaining final approval.


Acres of vegetation have already been cleared from the site. The Federal Aviation Administration will have to inspect the site for approval after the airstrip is in place.


Clattenburg hopes to have the airpark up and running within two years, but says three is probably more likely. He says he has not identified a financer, but has selected “volunteers” to do the construction. “Agreement came from local homeowners and...with Minnesota Power and Light, they are just letting me cross their transmission line.”


The access road will go under a transmission line owned by Minnesota Power. The small driveway off Highway 53 north of the county road will need a cutout to comply with increased traffic. “Yeah, [Minnesota Power has] been very, very helpful. As has the Minnesota Department of Transportation and St. Louis County as a whole. Nothing but support with the agencies I have been dealing with.”


The land is surprisingly elevated and slightly rolling above the occasional low-lying wetlands. “I have gone through the process of the wetland delineation before purchasing the property, and we have a clear runway path with minimal impact to wetlands. And that was completed last fall.”


There are no current plans to store jet fuel on the site. “We got the Duluth Airport right down the road...If anyone wants fuel before they go, they could go right down to Monaco and fill up. That is my intent right now. Whether or not it is going to change is up to a flight association, and when that is up and running, then we address that at that point, as would any airport would.”


Eugene Russel is one of the volunteer heavy equipment operators that Clattenburg has in mind. Russel and his family own property near the southeast side of the development off Bergstrom Junction Road. “I have not been up there lately,” says Russel, “but I think [Clattenburg] is done for the year because of the cold weather.”


Russel works for a trucking firm in Proctor that services Clattenburg’s equipment and helped scrape the site after trees were removed. “He plans on putting in the airstrip and...I think a dozen rental houses on four-acre plots...which will bring in business into the area.”


Other neighbors are less-than-enthusiastic about the airpark—assuming they had even heard it was happening.


One property owner and his wife, who asked not to be named, say they knew nothing about the proposed development until they were contacted by the Zenith.


They live in Industrial Township, which runs very close to the west side of Highway 53, across from the site. But because the airpark will technically be in Grand Lake Township, they weren’t required to be notified, even though they live only half a mile away.


A homeowner on Bergstrom Road, to the east, says she will consider selling her eight acres if the development goes through, figuring it may increase land values.


Another nearby resident, who also asked not to be named, lives on the other side of Highway 53, less than a quarter mile from where the airstrip will be. In fact, his home will be in the direct path of planes taking off or landing from the southeast, between two power lines.


This resident received a mailing from St. Louis County, informing him that his property is near the proposed development. A public meeting took place last summer—but in Virginia, 45 miles away from the site.


Clattenburg says he visited homeowners on the northeast side, but not all those to the southeast, which this nearby resident feels is unreasonable, since the affected landowners are all clustered on the south side. “If you went straight north of here, it’s all state and county forest, all the way to the Range, all the way to Biwabik.


“As far as building a bunch of homes, I do not care. You can make the lot size as small as you want; that does not bother me. But as I was treated—that it was no big deal if the planes were going over my house—I was a little offended by that.”


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