Essex Fells, N.J.: ‘It’s Very Norman Rockwell’

Essex Fells, N.J.: ‘It’s Very Norman Rockwell’

After Christina PioCosta-Lahue spent much of her adult life overseas, then moved to Brooklyn and started a family, she discovered she could go home. Last summer she moved back to Essex Fells, the tiny northern suburb of New Jersey where she grew up.

Ms. PioCosta-Lahue, 42, and husband Emmett Williams, 58, who have a young son and another child along the way, swapped a small apartment in the brownstone they own in Bedford-Stuyvesant for a colonial stucco 1.26 acres. Pay $ 1.087 million. They had also looked in Montclair, about five miles to the east, but found comparable houses more expensive and on smaller lots.

Her ready-to-move-in four bedroom, four and a half bathroom house is close to her parents and the house her grandparents built six decades ago. “My parents still live in the house I grew up in, around the block,” said Ms. PioCosta-Lahue, who is now also closer to her job in her family’s commercial real estate business in Fairfield, NJ, Mr. Williams, a independent company, is a real estate investor, works from home

Second, third, and even fourth generation residents are common in the Essex Fells neighborhood of western Essex County. “You see people who grew up in the city move to town and when they have families they move back,” said Edward Davis, corporate attorney and part-time mayor since 2018. “It’s a lovely little town that you can raise a family.”

Essex Fells is also considered to be one of the most desirable areas in the county until 1928, with its highly regarded school system, great old houses, and tight community with no business district.

“It’s very Norman Rockwell – it’s like being in a little fairy tale,” said Dana Schwern of Compass, a real estate agent for the house Ms. PioCosta-Lahue bought and a resident herself. Ms. Schwern and her family moved from Glen Ridge to Essex Fells five years ago. They have bigger property, she said, but pay less than half of what they used to pay for property taxes.

Despite the lack of business, Essex Fells has managed to keep taxes in check, in large part due to the utility company it operates. The borough supplies North Caldwell, Caldwell and Roseland with water from the 16 wells it owns. It also shares some public services with its neighbors, including the emergency call center and the district court, though it has its own police force and volunteer fire department.

A comparatively low tax rate was only part of the attraction for Loren and Amy Grossman, who moved to Essex Fells that summer. They sold their seven-bedroom colonial revival home on one-third of an acre in Montclair for $ 1.3 million and bought a mid-century four-bedroom one-acre home for $ 750,000.

“It checked many boxes for us,” said Grossman, 56, the chief strategy officer for a marketing technology company.

In particular, he said, he values ​​being in a quieter environment while staying close to friends, shops, and restaurants in Montclair. And he likes having a bigger lot, which meant he and his wife could add a pool among other renovations. “We were able to assign the space to what now fits our lifestyle,” he said.

Essex Fells is the smallest parish in Essex County, with a population of around 2,100 in 1.3 square kilometers of rolling, tree-lined terrain. And because there is no commercial downtown, it seems to be somewhat hidden by the more populated areas it borders, such as Caldwell, Roseland, Verona, West Caldwell, and West Orange.

“It’s kind of a running joke that nobody knows where we are,” said Edward P. Abbot, a Manhattan attorney who was mayor from 2002 to 2017. “We’re in a very dense county and we enjoy the atmosphere of being in a small town.”

The heart of the community can be reached from the busy avenues of Bloomfield and Eagle Rock. There are two parallel major thoroughfares within the borough – Fells Road and Roseland Avenue – as well as numerous winding streets with lush greenery, stately old houses and a generous supply of public space.

The housing stock of around 750 houses consists almost exclusively of detached single-family houses, including ranches from the mid-century, capes, colonial masters from the pre-war period and Tudor estates. Some are steeped in history. Mr. Abbot and wife Jill Abbot, who moved to Essex Fells in 1992, said their 1910 colonial era was once part of an inn run by Martha Mays, a governess of President James A. Garfield’s children.

Real estate doesn’t come cheap in Essex Fells. The average retail price for the 49 homes sold in 2020 was $ 1.031 million, according to the Garden State Multiple Listing Service.

However, this does not include off-market sales. “Essex Fells has a history of private sales,” said Roberta Baldwin, an agent at Keller Williams, based in Montclair. “Some are in families.”

There were nine homes in the market in mid-February, according to Listing Service, from a three-bedroom, three-bedroom, half-acre ranch built in 1949 that was listed for $ 679,000 to a 1906, seven-bedroom Tudor-style property three and a half acres, listed for $ 3.49 million.

“There’s never a lot of inventory at any point,” said Ms. Schwern of Compass, noting that residents tend to stay there for years.

With many people working from home due to the pandemic, “this city has become more in demand,” she said, adding, “A lot of people like bigger houses. They want more life with several generations. “

Rentals are relatively rare. Homes and townhouses in the Brownstones of Essex Fells complex on Bloomfield Avenue, the only affordable housing in the district, are available to rent sporadically. Recently, a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom apartment went on sale for $ 3,400 per month.

The pond on Fells Road is a popular hangout in winter when it’s filled and frozen. Mr Davis, the Mayor, remembered hockey games and annual ice skating races, while both Ms. PioCosta-Lahue and mother Robin PioCosta-Lahue have fond memories of skating with friends. “I went to the skating pond every day after school,” said Robin PioCosta-Lahue.

Other high-traffic public areas include Grover Cleveland Park, which the neighborhood shares with Caldwell, and the Trotter Tract Woodland Trail near the playing fields at Egan Field, where Robin PioCosta-Lahue loves to take her three dogs for a walk. Both are in the northwest part of the city.

Social activities, including auctions and picnics, are offered by local groups such as the parent teachers’ association and the volunteer fire department. Many residents belong to the Essex Fells Country Club on Devon Road or the Fells Brook Club, with tennis courts and a pool, on Fells Road.

Essex Fells School on Hawthorne Road is one of the best public schools in the state for math and reading literacy. Around 250 pre-school students up to sixth grade are enrolled there. In-person learning continued throughout the pandemic, in large part due to the small class sizes.

The West Essex regional school district serves middle and high school students in Essex Fells as well as students in neighboring Fairfield, North Caldwell and Roseland.

West Essex High School offers multiple advanced courses to more than 1,100 students and has a 97 percent graduation rate. The mean SAT scores for the 2018-19 school year were 579 for reading and writing and 588 for arithmetic, compared to 539 and 541 across the state.

Essex Fells is about 24 miles from Midtown Manhattan, or about 45 minutes to an hour by car depending on traffic.

Many residents currently work remotely, although some, like Mr. Abbot, regularly commute to offices in New York. He often takes a PATH train to Harrison Station on Interstate 280, about a 20-minute drive from town. The trip to Lower Manhattan takes about 20 minutes and costs $ 2.75 for a one-way trip or $ 110 for a monthly pass.

Mr Grossman, who also takes the PATH train, said he could shave 10 to 15 minutes off his previous commute to the Montclair financial district, where he took a New Jersey transit train to the PATH train in Hoboken. Some midtown or Upper Manhattan commuters choose to take the 40-minute New Jersey Transit from Montclair to Pennsylvania Station.

Bus traffic on the DeCamp bus routes is currently not an option, as the service was discontinued in summer due to low passenger numbers.

Essex Fells was once part of the parish of Caldwell and was incorporated as a separate district in 1902. The name is derived from Essex County and from John R. Fell, the majority shareholder of the development company, which is responsible for planning the community. (“Fells” also refers to the hilly terrain of the region.)

Mr. Fell’s father-in-law, the noted Philadelphia banker Anthony Joseph Drexel, had suggested developing homes in the area after learning that the Pennsylvania Railroad would be expanding its service there. He bought 1,000 acres in 1888 and later hired a landscape architect to design roads. The railroad came through in 1902, although the train service stopped in 1966.

Notable residents included singer Connie Francis and Johnny Sylvester, the young man for whom Babe Ruth promised to start a home run during the 1926 World Series.

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