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Utopia, NJ

Posted February 7, 2008 by Perdita Buchan

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Many New Jerseyans yearn for the perfect address. Nearly 100 years ago, a few idealists created Free Acres as a hedge against increasing property taxes. Just a quaint notion? Not to those who remain.

I am in the middle of the central New Jersey commuter belt, on my way to utopia. “Turn at the Getty station,” my directions read. I drive past rows of short streets, each lined with identical houses. In the distance I see an improbable collection of huge, Tyvek-shrouded homes under construction on a steep ridge of the Watchung Mountains. At an old red farmhouse I turn again, onto a road that is barely one SUV width, into Free Acres, regarded at its founding nearly a century ago as one of New Jersey’s so-called utopian communities.

There are no streetlights, but trees are everywhere. These trees have presence, like those in a fairy-tale forest. They hang over the road and abut houses, some close enough to cause the ordinary suburban homeowner to worry about their possible collapse. In the fall, when their leaves are gone, the trees expose an eccentric collection of camps and cottages, the few newer houses rising starkly among them.

Some 85 properties border the nine roads in the roughly 75 acres that make up the Free Acres Association, whose zoning codes are intended more to unite than distinguish. Fences are forbidden. Paths meander through the communal woods from road to road, passing behind and between houses, making this feel like the summer colony it once was. There’s no lake, but a swimming pool is set amid the trees and a few late-blooming flowers. A wooden bridge spans a small stream. Children ride by on bicycles. Despite the muffled rush of nearby Route 78, a woodland stillness prevails.

Free Acres was founded in 1910 by New York lawyer Bolton Hall, a friend of the radical left and a disciple of political reformer Henry George. Like George, Hall believed that land should be taxed as the single source of public revenue. His system, he believed, had two virtues: It was fairer than income tax, which penalized initiative, and it discouraged land speculation.

Hall proposed to prove his point using property he owned in Berkeley Heights. And so on July 23, 1910, he conveyed this property, a former farm owned by one Robert Murphy, to the new Free Acres Corporation in a “deed of gift.” The land would be divided into one-year renewable leaseholds varying in size from a quarter-acre to one acre, with one nearly five-acre communal tract known as Farmhouse Meadow set aside near the northeast corner of Free Acres.

Leaseholders would pay rent based on the annually appraised value of their land excluding “improvements” (their homes). Leaseholds could be transferred pending a majority approval at two consecutive association meetings. This is still the rule.
Over the years, some land was added to Hall’s original grant. But a penalty clause in the Certificate of Incorporation ensured that if the association ever sold or mortgaged rather than rented any portion of the land, the proceeds and the land itself would revert to Hall or his heirs.

Hall’s experiment was not unusual. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, New Jersey’s proximity to New York and Philadelphia, as well as its landscape of coastal plain, mountains, and farms, made it home to a surprising number of so-called utopian communities. Created in response to an increasingly industrialized society that separated people from nature and from each other, these communities were hungry for open land. In rural New Jersey, you could pick your paradise.

About 30 intrepid souls, recruited at meetings in New York City, set their sights on Free Acres that first summer. They roughed it with makeshift accommodations and made do without electricity, plumbing, or a reliable water supply. Despite such challenges, life at Free Acres quickly took on the characteristics that would come to define it. The new community’s dramatic guild staged its first open-air production—fittingly, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Residents dug the swimming hole that would eventually become the community pool. In those early years Free Acres residents formed a garden guild, library guild, tennis club, and young people’s club. Classes were held in “mental motor rhythmics,” a free form of dance. Enchanted by the rural setting, residents planted gardens; some kept bees.
Hall never restricted Free Acres to single-tax advocates, so the colonists were a heterogeneous collection of writers, artists, and free thinkers who hoped to live simply with nature. Cottages of all descriptions, some with whimsical names like Camp Wopowinkie and Dogwood Dell, symbolized this independent spirit. Environmentalists before the word existed, the early leaseholders protected their trees—none greater than six inches in diameter could, and still cannot, be cut down without association consent—and they documented in newsletters the flora and fauna of their shared woodlands.

Free Acres had some famous residents in those heady early days: actors James Cagney and Jersey City–born Victor Kilian, writers Thorne Smith (Topper) and MacKinlay Kantor (Andersonville), and anarchist Harry Kelly, who helped found the Ferrer Modern School, centerpiece of the anarchist colony at Stelton in present-day Piscataway. Others were simply eccentric. One Free Acreite named Francis Tucker enjoyed bathing naked in an outdoor sunken tub; another talked to the birds. Some, like illustrator Will Crawford, were famous and eccentric. Crawford, who had spent time in the West, lived in a teepee before building his log cabin. Later he established the archery guild, complete with Robin Hood costumes; according to community legend, Crawford even tried, unsuccessfully, to secure acorns from Sherwood Forest in the hopes of growing direct descendants of the great oaks that had sheltered his hero.

If no one today is learning lines from Shakespeare or fitting arrow to bow in the Farmhouse Meadow, Free Acres nonetheless remains distinct from surrounding suburbia. To a large extent, the Free Acre Folk, as their constitution identifies them, continue to govern themselves. They volunteer as trustees and assessors and sit on committees like Forestry, Health and Safety, and Grounds and Recreation. The association meets once a month in the Farmhouse, which has long served as the community center. In this open town meeting, leaseholders discuss community issues and make decisions by consensus. Each leasehold has one vote, although domestic partners may split that vote.

Today each leaseholder pays a three-part tax bill rather than Bolton Hall’s single tax. Berkeley Heights and Watchung, the municipalities in which Free Acres lies, each issue a tax bill for all the Free Acres properties that fall within their respective jurisdictions. The association then decides, based on the size of each property, how much each leaseholder will pay toward the community’s total tax burden. The association also charges operating and maintenance fees.

The tax structure might strike some as quaint, itself a symbol of communal thought, a throwback to simpler times. But residents of Free Acres need not travel far outside its borders to confront the pressures of modern life. To the north, suburban palaces are rising quickly in Berkeley Heights. To the south, just beyond an eleven-acre buffer zone, Route 78 roars by. As one Free Acreite puts it, “Developers are circling like sharks.” Yet even under this threat, residents hold true to tradition. Every summer brings a communitywide pool party and every Halloween a costume parade.

Martin Bierbaum wonders whether Free Acres can survive the juggernaut onslaught of suburbia. The executive director of the Municipal Land Use Center at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, Bierbaum and his wife, Joan, a court administrator for the township of Berkeley Heights, have lived in Free Acres for almost 30 years. What kept the community going in the past, he says, was its ability to adapt. Threats have come from without and within, but Free Acres has always bent rather than broken. Rampant development, though, may be its toughest challenge yet. “It would be easier if we were isolated,” Bierbaum says.

Of course, Free Acres has never been isolated from events in the larger world. The Depression caused many leaseholders to move permanently to their rural retreat, transforming it from summer colony to year-round settlement. At the same time, German craftsmen from Camp Elsinore, a neighboring hiking and nature club, acquired leaseholds in Free Acres and began to build more substantial houses. When this came to the attention of Watchung and Berkeley Heights, taxes on these properties rose. Since leaseholders were taxed only according to their amount of land, someone with a tent—or a teepee—on a substantial piece of land might be subsidizing someone with a four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre lot. The perceived imbalance inspired many in Free Acres to mount something of a revolt against the single tax; at association meetings they went so far as to decry Bolton Hall himself.

Finally, in 1936, Free Acres adopted a “communal tax advantage” plan in addition to the individual property tax. Disgusted by this deviation from the single tax, Hall washed his hands of Free Acres. In the 1960s, area property prices rose and lease terms were extended from 1 to 99 years to persuade banks to issue mortgages. In the 1980s, the community’s constitution was significantly rewritten, removing, among other tenets, the prohibition on second stories, thus allowing the construction of more typical suburban houses. “There have always been battles fought,” says longtime resident Terry Conner, and often, he adds, those battles have been cast between those he calls “old people and new people.”

Conner’s roots in Free Acres run deep. The grandson of writer Thorne Smith, he was born and raised there, and he returned after his mother’s death in 2001. He sits in the living room of Smith’s former cottage. Outside the window stretches the lawn where Smith liked to write, sitting at a table in crisp tennis whites. Today it’s Conner’s home. He’s made some ample additions—cottage no longer describes it—but the place still looks as though it has grown organically out of the surrounding trees. The porch, Conner tells me, was once built around a large oak that had already claimed the space.

As one of the “old people,” Conner worries that the community is losing its identity and that, more and more, it’s becoming a part of its suburban surroundings. Indeed, the new house across the street wouldn’t look out of place in any high-end New Jersey development. Ed and Anne Hardina built it when they moved here in 1998. Sitting in their tidy, traditional living room, Ed and Anne don’t seem like the kind of people who would be attracted by Free Acres’ bohemian heritage. But they love the freedom it gives their children, aged five and eight—the Farmhouse Meadow, the woodland playground, the pool in summer. It’s a place, Anne says, where you know your neighbors and where they will always help you out. After all, volunteering for committees brings people together. Yes, they agree, debates can get heated, but, Anne insists, “people do get over it.”

Another relative newcomer, Sal Passalacqua, is the owner of Dimaio’s, a popular restaurant in Berkeley Heights, and a guest chef on the Food Network’s Emeril Live. For years before he bought into the community, Passalacqua heard that people in Free Acres were weird or maybe nudists. Yet when a leasehold complete with abandoned cottage came on the market, he and his wife, Tami, bought it. The cottage couldn’t be salvaged, so they tore it down and built a house. But the Passalacquas used stucco and natural stone to make it compatible with the landscape they love. Tami is chairwoman of the pool committee, and Sal, who now serves as a trustee for the Free Acres Association, would like to restore the woodland theater. What neither wants is to see Free Acres turn into an ordinary suburb.

Certainly some leaseholders would like Free Acres to be more orderly, less eccentric, more like the surrounding towns. Others, “new people” among them, believe that Free Acres should remain a place of opportunity for the greatest number of people, that suburbanizing it would make it less diverse. This split is evident at a recent association meeting, when a leaseholder proposes buying a second leasehold, tearing down the existing cottage, and building a house to sell. Although nothing in Free Acres’ constitution expressly forbids this, owning more than one leasehold has always been discouraged as the sort of speculation that Hall frowned on.

But in two separate votes that inspire anguished debate over the balance of individual versus community needs, residents reject the plan. On appeal, the case goes to an arbitrator, who sides with the leaseholder, who in turn sells the second leasehold without building the house, rendering the conflict moot. Perhaps Hall’s ghost remains on alert after all.

To some extent, that ghost, in the form of the penalty clause, is responsible for the longevity of Free Acres. Financial problems that forced them to sell their main asset—land—ended a number of utopias. Other utopias perished with the death of philosophies like Fourierism, which decried the alienating nature of industrialism. But giving up and selling out has never been an option at Free Acres, whose residents have gotten through hard times and resolved their differences.

Still, it does seem as if something less quantifiable is at work here. You can feel it every time you turn at the Farmhouse and leave the subdivisions behind. You hear it when you talk to residents, even those who, like Barbara Deutsch, wish that Free Acres would give people a little less individual freedom. Not everyone, she says, understands that times have changed, that property here is now very valuable and should be kept up.

What makes Free Acres different from shorter-lived experimental communities is that it has stripped utopia to its essentials. Maybe the transformative power of community and a connection with nature necessitate no further ideology. One might argue that Free Acres works because it attracts like-minded people, although that may no longer be true. The community’s smaller, older houses tend to cost less than homes elsewhere in Berkeley Heights or Watchung. Home buyers today may take a chance on something different purely for economic reasons—and then find themselves becoming part of a community they didn’t even know existed.

Some feel constrained by all the rules and leave after a few years. But most who stay are drawn into the inclusive culture of the place. They may come to Free Acres with no interest in its history, yet invariably they end up joining the debate over whether to spray for gypsy moths, or lending their voices to the outcry when the Farmhouse Meadow is accidentally mowed before the buttercups have bloomed.

Perdita Buchan is a freelance writer who lives in Ocean Grove.

Article from October, 2005 Issue.


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