The Contenders

Towns 2 through 10 abound with virtues, from open space to fine schools to mom-and-pop downtowns.

Woodacres Drive, Mountainside.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Chatham Township (Morris)
Though this charming Morris County suburb fell from the top spot in 2008, it still has plenty to be proud of. Here, 10,159 residents enjoy gorgeous homes on tree-lined streets and an easy commute to New York City. The town sits on the edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and is also convenient to luxury shopping. “For quality of life in 2010, I don’t think you could ask for more than that,” says township administrator Thomas Ciccarone. Even in a tough housing market, the median home price grew 6 percent since 2006 to $845,000 in 2009. The school system is top-notch. “When we get a call, one of the first things people ask about is the schools,” says Susan Hunter, vice president of Lois Schneider Realtor in Summit.

Caldwell (Essex)
Though it covers little more than one square mile, the Borough of Caldwell boasts a thriving downtown that serves its 7,133 residents and those of its neighbors West Caldwell, North Caldwell, and Essex Fells with a broad range of restaurants, shops, and services. The main drag, Bloomfield Avenue, runs the length of the town and includes Caldwell’s historical claim to fame, the birthplace of Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. president born in New Jersey. “In the summers there are weekly concerts held in Grover Cleveland Park,” says veteran real estate agent Ilene Kurland of Coldwell Banker. “Caldwell has apartment buildings as well as homes, which, combined with the downtown, is why it has residents of all ages.” Flanking Bloomfield Avenue, Caldwell has many blocks of small, well-cared-for homes with porches and neat yards that add to its charm and provide a small-town living experience in bustling Essex County. (“We’ve got good bones,” says Mayor Susan Gartland.) Caldwell has begun purchasing small parcels of open space around town “to preserve pockets of green in this day when every bit of land is built on,” Gartland says.

New Hanover (Burlington)
Driving into New Hanover Township, the first things you see are well-kept streets and American flags on every lamppost. “You’ll ask, ‘Am I in a Norman Rockwell painting?’” jokes Mayor Dennis Roohr. Located in Burlington County, New Hanover is the highest-ranked Southern town on our list. Although the majority of the land is in agriculture, New Hanover is also host to McGuire Air Force Base and a portion of Fort Dix. With a low crime rate, Roohr says this close-knit community of 9,474 is the kind of place where women can walk their dogs at 10 pm and children can ride their bicycles in the street. Another huge draw is median taxes more than $2,000 lower than the state median. “We have a governing body and a school board so close to the small community that we run the operations in a business-like, frugal manner,” Roohr says. “Farming is a very difficult business, and you learn to make every penny go as far as you can.”

Upper Township (Cape May)
Cape May County’s Upper Township claims a top spot once again (it was number two in 2008). Even though its median property tax bill increased 9.7 percent over the past two years, the figure remains relatively low for New Jersey at $3,985. Even more impressive is that 49 percent of Upper Township was recognized as open space in 2009. “Our open space helps accentuate the lifestyle that people really love about living here,” says Mayor Richard Palombo. “We have a significant amount of marshland areas, a part of the Pinelands, and wildlife preserves, which allow people to take advantage of birdwatching, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.”
While residents can camp and hike in Belleplain State Forest and check out nearby wildlife areas including the Tuckahoe-Corbin City Fish and Wildlife Management Area, Upper Township is also close to the Shore. As a gateway to the seashore town of Strathmere, Upper Township is able to retain its quiet charm while still offering easy access to bustling Ocean City to the north and Sea Isle City to the south.

Tabernacle (Burlington)
Originally named Tabernacle in the Wilderness, this Burlington County town is a rising star. It has climbed 17 spots since the 2008 ranking and 61 notches since 2006. Forty-four percent of the nearly 50-square-mile town was designated as open space in 2009. Tabernacle, known as the Gateway to the Pines, is located entirely within the Pinelands National Reserve, which is not only a farm and agriculture hub, but also home to recreational fun like canoeing and hiking.

Tabernacle plays hard, but it works even harder. In the classroom, Tabernacle students excelled on statewide standardized testing. “Our district always wants to assure that our students are successful and that we go beyond the state testing benchmarks,” says Berenice Blum-Bart, superintendent of schools. Blum-Bart explains that an education in Tabernacle is seen as a joint responsibility between schools and parents—a match she says is easy when you live in “a caring community with residents who have strong values about family and a commitment to young and old alike.”

Plainsboro (Middlesex)
Home prices in Plainsboro have gone up (8 percent since 2006) when those of other towns have sagged. “I think it speaks to, frankly, the desirability of the community,” says Mayor Pete Cantu. Located in Middlesex County, the 11.8 square-mile town that was previously a rural farming enclave has transitioned into a vibrantly diverse community of 21,148 while keeping its agricultural heritage. Plainsboro Village, the original settlement in the township with buildings dating from the eighteenth century, is undergoing a mix of preservation and development that includes a new library. The 1,000-acre Plainsboro Preserve contains nature trails, a lake, and an Environmental Education Center that is one of nine New Jersey Audubon Society nature centers.

But perhaps one of the township’s biggest draws is that, over the past two years, the median property tax bill has increased only 1.9 percent while the rest of the state has seen an average jump of 7.8 percent. The West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District is another selling point. The district boasts a 100 percent graduation rate; in 2007-08, at least 93 percent of students achieved proficiency on statewide tests. “People actually move here for the school district,” says Superintendent of Schools Victoria Kniewel. “There’s a great emphasis not only on achievement but on developing that thirst for learning that helps our students become more prepared for our global society.”

Mountainside (Union)
Though busy Route 22 bisects it, this Union County borough still reports 37 percent of the land is open. Mountainside is home to two outdoor destinations: a portion of the 2,000-acre Watchung Reservation and 139-acre Echo Lake Park (which it shares with neighboring Westfield). “We get the benefits of a lot of county events,” says Frank Masella, Mountainside’s recreation director. The park boasts two lakes for boating, skating, and fishing, and also hosts weekly outdoor concerts in the summer. The reservation houses the Trailside Nature and Science Center, the state’s first natural history museum, built in 1941. In the reservation, the borough’s 6,551 residents can take advantage of several nature trails, as well as saddle up for horseback riding at nearby Watchung Stables. Mountainside’s students excel on state tests, achieving 96 percent or better proficiency on fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade exams. (Mountainside’s high schoolers attend Governor Livingston in Berkeley Heights.)

Verona (Essex)
With its picturesque lake, 54-acre Verona Park is a year-round attraction, with ice skating in winter and boating and fishing in spring and summer. The park (which belongs to Essex County) has its entrance on Bloomfield Avenue, the broad boulevard where downtown Verona spreads out a selection of mom-and-pop shops like the 75-year-old Terry’s Family Pharmacy, where there really is a Terry. “You don’t have to contend with mall traffic, but you can get to Willowbrook Mall in less than fifteen minutes,” says Anthony G. Attrino, editor of the Verona-Cedar Grove Times. Schools are well-rated, homes are small to medium and lovingly maintained, and neighbors look out for each other. “Verona is a tight-knit community where a lot of people have lived their whole lives,” Attrino says, “and many families have lived for generations.”

North Caldwell (Essex)
From some of North Caldwell’s rolling hills, residents can see Manhattan about sixteen miles to the east. But the view outside any window is good in this leafy bedroom community where the typical lot exceeds half an acre and the median home price of $675,000 gained 5 percent in the last two years. Its four large athletic fields have night lighting, offer facilities for adults, and host an array of youth travel teams.
“We take pride in the way we run our community,” says Mayor Mel Levine. “If somebody has a problem, it’s not like they’re afraid to call me. I send a birthday card to every senior citizen, and I meet with all the new residents every year to welcome them and make information accessible to them.” The event of the year is the annual town picnic, held around Labor Day at the municipal pool, at which children and youth teams “are made to feel rather important,” says the mayor.

Click on the links below to view Best Places to Live-related articles:

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