Florham Park is No. 1 On Our List of Top Towns

A low tax rate, laudable schools boost Morris County municipality.

Among Florham Park's favorite icons are the 19th century Little Red School House.
Among Florham Park's favorite icons are the 19th century Little Red School House.
Photo by Joe Polillo

Drive through Florham Park on Columbia Turnpike, and you might think all the Morris County borough has to offer are strip malls and corporate campuses. But tucked away beyond the main drag you’ll find a tidy and tightly knit suburb that works hard to keep its history and sense of community alive.

“There are a lot of things that draw people here,” says William Huyler, a former councilman and current borough administrator. “It’s not just the businesses and proximity to major cities and transportation, but the fact that it maintains that nice, small-town feel.”

Suzanne Herold, assistant to the borough clerk and a self-proclaimed Florham Park lifer, sees that spirit in action on a daily basis. “The mailman here carries treats for my dog,” says Herold. “The UPS man does the same thing. The people at the hardware store come out and say hello when you’re walking by. People wave to one another. That’s Florham Park.”

The borough packs a lot into its seven square miles, including 40 corporate entities, 100 businesses, three public schools, two university campuses and a sprawling training facility for the pro-football Jets, all within a 45-minute train ride to Manhattan.

Now Florham Park has a new distinction: It ranks number 1 in New Jersey Monthly’s 2015 Top Towns survey. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for the borough’s 11,831 residents, who enjoy a low tax rate in a safe community with a highly regarded school system.

Florham Park’s finances might serve as a model for any Jersey town. It is one of 16 municipalities in the state that has received a bond rating of AAA from Moody’s Corporation, thanks to a healthy balance sheet and a low debt burden. The borough has the second lowest tax rate in Morris County. The average residential tax bill in 2014 was $8,818, an increase of just 1.1 percent from 2012 to 2014.

Mayor Mark Taylor, a lifer who grew up in town and has raised his two children here, credits a combination of shared service agreements, substantial tax revenue from local businesses and prudent management for the borough’s sound financial state.

“We are very cautious about every economic move we make,” Taylor says. “In fact, we’ve employed a debt-reduction plan that we’ve been living up to the past four years to help the borough’s debt-to-income ratio. We don’t spend a dime unless it can be proven why.”

The NFL Jets are perhaps Florham Park’s most notable residents. Their $75 million training facility and corporate headquarters opened in 2008 at the former Exxon Research & Engineering site. The facility is leased to the Jets by the State Sports and Exposition Authority, which makes payments in lieu of taxes to the borough.

Corporate residents include BASF Corporation, Automatic Switch Company and the Lapp Group (a supplier of wire and cable). Commercial ventures combine for about 40 percent of the borough’s tax base.

Although neighboring Madison lays claim to Fairleigh Dickinson University on its welcome sign, almost all of the FDU campus is in Florham Park, as are portions of the College of Saint Elizabeth. Neither school pays property taxes to Florham Park because both have not-for-profit status,  but many students and faculty eat and shop in Florham Park, further supporting the local economy.

In addition to Madison and Chatham to the south, Florham Park abuts Hanover and East Hanover to the north, Livingston and Millburn to the east, and Morris Township to the west. The borough has numerous beneficial shared-services agreements with its neighbors.

Taylor says the town, which booms to a population of more than 60,000 by day, has grown substantially over the past decade—and shows no signs of stopping. “We’ve grown a nice town that people want to visit,” says the mayor, “and when they get here, they want to live here.”

Jets players can be spotted around town, and several celebrities have made Florham Park home,  including Nicole Elizabeth LaValle (better known as Snooki), retired Giants running back Tiki Barber and retired NHL goaltender Johan Hedberg.

“They’re just like us,” says Kelly Korab, resident and staff assistant at Ridgedale Middle School, where she works with students with special needs. “A lot of people you meet, they just feel like family, and you feel welcome even though we didn’t grow up here; we still feel welcome.”

Korab and her husband, Mark, came to the borough in 2006 with plans to rent. After a year renting, they fell for Florham Park and decided it would be the perfect place to raise their children, Joseph and Mary, now 12 and 10, respectively.

“[Our kids] were in preschool here, and they were doing very well; the schools are good here, so we decided to stay,” says Mark, who commutes to Manhattan. “You wouldn’t think you’d be this close to the city and get the kind of small-town feeling you get in town.”

Florham Park students attend one of two elementary schools—Briarwood or Brooklake—and Ridgedale Middle School, before moving on to Hanover Park High School in East Hanover, which ranked number 26 on New Jersey Monthly’s 2014 list of the state’s top public high schools.

“The town is family oriented, homes are beautiful, taxes are very reasonable,” says Dee Palianto, real estate agent with Coccia Real Estate Group in East Hanover. “But the [biggest] reasons people come is for their school system and because they’re a close-knit community.”

Florham Park’s sense of community is tied to the borough’s rural beginnings, says Patrick Dolan, professor of psychology at Drew University and a member of the Florham Park Historic Preservation Commission.

Settled in the late 17th century, the area that would become Florham Park was originally known for its agricultural products and well-made brooms; it was often referred to as Broomtown. By the late 1800s, the stretch from Madison to Morris Township began to attract dozens of wealthy bankers and industrialists, who built seasonal homes here.

Among those millionaire families were the Twomblys—Hamilton McKown Twombly and his wife, Florence Adele Vanderbilt Twombly, the favorite granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1890, the Twomblys settled on a 900-acre farm, most of which was in what was then a section of Chatham Township called Afton. Concerned about high taxes, the Twomblys and another large landowner, Dr. Leslie D. Ward, petitioned the state to create a new borough. Florence and Hamilton fused their first names together to form “Florham” and combined it with “Park” from Dr. Ward’s estate, known as Brooklake Park. Florham Park was officially incorporated in 1899.

After Dr. Ward’s death in 1912, his 1,000-acre estate was sold to Howard Cole who, in 1922, sold 450 acres to the first housing developer in town, whose homes attracted many new residents. In the post-World War II era, returning G.I.s spurred another population boom.

Florham Park’s home stock is a mix of 19th-century-style colonials, 1940s Cape Cods and 1950s split-levels. The median home-sales price in 2014 was $555,500. “Colonials are the best sellers with bedrooms up away from the living area,” says Palianto. “Most basements are finished, and property sizes are really nice to top it off.” Higher-end areas include the Summit Woods development and Country Club Lane, adjacent to the Brooklake Country Club. Florham on the Fairways is a luxury condo community; other clusters of condos are found throughout the town, including some 55-and-over communities.

Growth continues. The Goddard School, a national chain of private preschools, is building a facility at the Park Avenue business campus within the next 18 months. Another business campus, the Green at Florham Park—where the Jets are located—is adding a 350,000-square-foot, 225-room extended-stay facility to be built by Korman Communities. The Green is also getting 425 new high-end homes and condominiums on approximately 100 acres.

As recently as the late 1960s, Florham Park had just one stoplight, one diner, one hardware store and a small Shop Rite. That changed in the 1970s when large corporations like the Automatic Switch Company, still headquartered in the borough, and Esso began making Florham Park home. Esso (now Exxon) has since departed.

Today’s town center—mainly a cluster of four strip malls built over the past 60 years—was recently given a facelift. Tenants range from Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and Panera Bread to long-standing local businesses like the Florham Park Hardware Store and the Florham Park Diner.

“We have rebuilt our entire downtown—every shopping center has been reformulated over the past 7 to 10 years,” Taylor says. “It looks charming, it’s not too overpowering, but it’s a big draw.”

Perhaps not everyone would agree that the Columbia Turnpike strip is “charming,” but there’s no question Florham Park has maintained its small-town allure. Drive down any street and you’ll find residents washing their cars and pushing strollers. Neighbors exchange greetings as kids take shots at miniature soccer nets in the driveways.

“It’s a safe community,” Herold says. “It’s the kind of close-knit community where you care for everyone—you care for each other’s kids, each other’s families.”

Much of the community spirit is fostered on the borough’s playing fields, including the $4 million Elm Street Recreation Complex. Completed last fall, the complex includes several multipurpose fields, a playground and the town’s first artificial turf field. Plans call for expansion of the complex, including trails throughout the remaining 90 acres of protected wetlands surrounding the park.

The popular municipal pool underwent a $1 million facelift this spring, and the 7-acre Spring Gardens Lake is open for water sports and fishing throughout the warmer months. Golfers can choose between the private Brooklake Country Club and Pinch Brook, a Rees Jones-designed, executive-length Morris County course. Exercise junkies can get their fix at the 110,000-square-foot Lifetime Fitness facility in town.

The sprawling municipal complex includes the 16,000-square-foot Free Public Library of Florham Park and a gazebo for summertime concerts and other activities. The borough’s Fourth of July activities include an impressive parade—said to be the longest running such parade in New Jersey—as well as a house decorating contest, a social garden with food and beer, and, of course, evening fireworks.

“My father is 75. He drives three hours to come see the Fourth of July in Florham Park,” says Dolan, who grew up in upstate New York. “I’ve seen nothing like it.”

The borough’s symbolic heart is the Little Red School House, which looks somewhat out of place at the edge of the Columbia Turnpike shopping strip at the corner of Ridgedale Avenue. Built in 1866, the preserved schoolhouse also served as a center for local dances, religious gatherings and town meetings. It is on both the state and national registers of historic places, and holds artifacts spanning the history of the borough.

Florham Park is also steeped in the spirit of volunteerism. The borough has an all-volunteer first aid squad, fire department and town council. Volunteers make up all mayor-appointed boards, including the Historic Preservation Commission, the Environmental Commission, the Recreation Committee and the July 4th Committee. All town-run events are run by volunteers.

“When we first moved here, there was just no way that you weren’t getting involved in some way—it’s what everyone did,” says Judy Wisnewski, who moved to Florham Park from Madison in 1967 with her husband, Stan. The couple raised four children in town and both remain heavily involved in the community. “It’s still like that,” she adds.

Dolan, who moved into his Florham Park home in 2007, couldn’t agree more.

“I have a 90-year-old man living next to me, and there’s almost competition to see who will shovel this guy’s driveway first,” he laughs. “I don’t doubt people are nice to each other in other towns, but there’s something really special about this place.”

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