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Wonderful Town

Posted January 28, 2008 by Jen A. Miller

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Last year a major magazine rated a small South Jersey town the best place to live in America. But the people of Moorestown already knew that.

“2005 is going to be a hard act to follow.”

Kevin Aberant, the mayor of Moorestown, has a point. Last January he became the first Democratic mayor in town history after his party earned a majority of seats on the town council, also for the first time. In the fall, Moorestown became the center of a media storm when local resident Terrell Owens had a rather public falling out with his employer, the Philadelphia Eagles football team. The hullabaloo brought plenty of attention to this 15-square-mile Philadelphia suburb settled by Quakers in 1682. But the “hard act” to which Aberant refers has nothing to do with the inflated egos of millionaire athletes. The mayor is recalling instead a Money magazine survey of the country’s best places to live—a survey that found his own hometown to be the best place of all.

Fittingly, perhaps, Aberant learned of the good news one summer day after walking home for lunch and finding his wife on the phone with a reporter from Money. A lawyer with an office near the center of town, Aberant often walks home at lunchtime, one of the pleasures of small-town living in a time when a 90-minute commute is not uncommon. Aberant can walk to a pizza parlor for Friday night takeout, walk to Starbucks for a Latte Grande, even walk to the woods to embrace his sylvan surroundings. The town’s well-conceived layout helps make Moorestown a desirable place to live, and it’s one reason why the town was honored in the August issue of Money. As for the mayor, he says that the national attention hasn’t affected the place he calls home. “The residents always felt Moorestown was a great place to live,” Aberant says. “It’s gratifying that Money magazine came to the same conclusion.”

A key part of Moorestown’s appeal lies in its location—and you know what they say about location. Moorestown is 90 minutes by train to New York City and Washington, D.C.; it’s 35 miles south of Princeton and a 15-minute drive to Philadelphia. Routes 41 and 38 slice through town, and routes 73 and 295 as well as the Turnpike pass nearby. For most of South Jersey, it’s a shopping destination; Moorestown has a mall, strip malls, and a cluster of big-box stores.

Many of the town’s roughly 20,000 residents live beyond the town center. From the outskirts of town, you must drive, literally, over a river and through some woods to get to Main Street, which Money described as “made for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.”

Sprawling estates are set back from the road or clustered in new developments, while smaller homes kiss the sidewalk in older neighborhoods. Throughout town you’ll see For Sale signs, but all the recent attention hasn’t pushed Moorestown’s housing prices to the stratosphere—at least not yet. The average home price in Moorestown in 2005 was just under $483,000, according to the state Division of Taxation, a 61 percent increase since 2000. That average can be misleading, pumped up by new and old mansions that dot the town. Housing values vary widely, with most homes priced from $250,000 to $2 million.

Then there’s the 45,000-square-foot hilltop home of Vernon C. Hill, chairman and CEO of Commerce Bank; known as Villa Collina—a bit of wordplay; collina is Italian for hill—it may be the largest private residence in New Jersey.

"Moorestown has more of what every buyer wants,” says Maria Giarratano of Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors in Moorestown. If you’re looking for new developments, Moorestown has them: A cluster on the east side of town ranges from modest single-family homes to multimillion-dollar showpieces. If you want to break out of the cookie-cutter model, Moorestown is full of Victorian homes that evoke a traditional small-town feel. But expect to pay more the closer you live to Main Street, with its toy store, ice-cream parlor, lots of crosswalks and benches, and, of course, Starbucks. Main Street is Moorestown’s heart, the center for activities such as the annual Halloween parade and winter carnival.

Moorestown is also home to Computer Science Corporation, PNC Bank, and Lockheed Martin, Burlington County’s largest employer, with 5,000 workers. Routes 73 and 295 connect Moorestown to office parks in nearby Marlton, Mount Laurel, and Cherry Hill.

Owens and Hill are hardly the town’s only big names. Moorestown has a history of attracting the rich and famous. The suffragist Alice Paul was born there in 1885. Town resident Samuel Leeds Allen invented the Flexible Flyer on Stokes Hill in 1889—and, yes, kids still sled there. Eldridge Johnson, owner of the company that became RCA Victor, called Moorestown home. And a string of professional athletes have settled in Moorestown over the years, among them Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Giarratano, who also lives in town, says the public schools are a key selling point for would-be homebuyers. “People come here because they don’t want to pay the private-school fees,” she says. Moorestown High ranked nineteenth in New Jersey Monthly’s 2004 ranking of public high schools, making it the highest-rated school in South Jersey, while the Moorestown Friends School is considered among the region’s top private schools.

Good schools led Paula Marantz Cohen to choose Moorestown when she moved from New York City twenty years ago with her husband and two children. Her daughter is a junior at Moorestown High, and her son, class of 2003, now attends Yale. “It has a good school system, and it has a lot of activities for kids,” says Cohen, a professor of English at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “We chose our house because we can walk to Main Street, and this has been wonderful for the kids.”

In recent years the construction of two housing developments that added some 800 homes on the east side of town generated criticism from locals who believed the resulting population influx created undue burdens on the school district and detracted from Moorestown’s small-town character. “I know there are some people who feel it’s not in the style of the small town,” Cohen says of the new neighborhoods, “but they’ve made the town bigger and given it more variety.”

Those who live in Moorestown say that it’s not just location or schools or housing that make the town. Last September on Make It Moorestown Day, residents indulged in 45 simultaneous block parties, and Aberant and members of the town council made it their civic duty to attend every last one, taxiing around town aboard an antique fire truck. For the locals, the block parties typified the appeal of a sophisticated small town considered by at least one national publication to be the best place to live in America.

Jen A. Miller is the former editor of SJ magazine.


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