Real State

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


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

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

Their move-in-ready home, with four bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms, is near her parents and the house her grandparents built six decades ago. “My parents still live in the house where I grew up, around the block,” said Ms. PioCosta-Lahue, who is also now closer to her job at her family’s commercial real estate business in Fairfield, N.J. Mr. Williams, an independent property investor, works from home

Second-, third- and even fourth-generation residents are common in the borough of Essex Fells, in western Essex County. “You see people who grew up in town move away to the city, and when they start a family they move back,” said Edward Davis, a corporate lawyer and the part-time mayor since 2018. “It’s a nice small town to raise a family.”

Essex Fells is also considered one of the county’s most desirable areas, with its highly regarded school system, grand old homes and close-knit community devoid of a commercial district, by 1928 ordinance.

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

Despite the absence of businesses, Essex Fells has managed to keep taxes in check, in large part because of the utility it operates. The borough supplies water from the 16 wells it owns to North Caldwell, Caldwell and Roseland. It also shares some public services with its neighbors, including the emergency dispatch and municipal court, although it maintains 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 over the summer. They sold their seven-bedroom colonial revival house on a third of an acre in Montclair for $1.3 million and bought a four-bedroom midcentury house on about an acre for $750,000.

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

In particular, he said, he appreciates being in a quieter environment while maintaining proximity to friends, shops and restaurants in Montclair. And he likes having a bigger piece of property, which meant he and his wife could add a pool, in addition to other renovations. “We were able to apportion the space to what fits our lifestyle now,” he said.

With roughly 2,100 residents in 1.3 square miles of hilly, tree-lined terrain, Essex Fells is the smallest municipality in Essex County. And because it has no commercial downtown, it may seem somewhat hidden by the more densely populated areas it borders, including Caldwell, Roseland, Verona, West Caldwell and West Orange.

“It’s kind of a running joke that no one knows where we are,” said Edward P. Abbot, a Manhattan lawyer who served as mayor from 2002 through 2017. “We’re in a very dense county, and we enjoy the atmosphere of being in a little town.”

The heart of the community can be reached off busy Bloomfield and Eagle Rock Avenues. Within the borough are two main thoroughfares that run parallel — Fells Road and Roseland Avenue — along with numerous winding roads with lush greenery, stately old houses and a generous supply of public space.

The housing stock of 750 or so homes consists almost entirely of single-family detached residences, including midcentury ranches, Capes, prewar colonials and Tudor estates. Some are steeped in history. Mr. Abbot and his wife Jill Abbot, who moved to Essex Fells in 1992, said their 1910 colonial was once part of an inn operated by Martha Mays, a governess to President James A. Garfield’s children.

Property isn’t cheap in Essex Fells. The average sale price for the 49 homes sold in 2020 was $1.031 million, according to the Garden State Multiple Listing Service.

That doesn’t include off-market sales, however. “There is a history in Essex Fells of private sales,” said Roberta Baldwin, an agent with Keller Williams, who is based in Montclair. “Some are within families.”

In mid-February, there were nine homes on the market, according to the listing service, ranging from a three-bedroom ranch built in 1949 on half an acre, listed for $679,000, to a 1906 Tudor-style estate with seven bedrooms on three and a half acres, listed for $3.49 million.

“There’s not a lot inventory at any one time,” said Ms. Schwern of Compass, noting that residents tend to stay put for years.

Also, as many people have been working from home because of the pandemic, “this town had become more in demand,” she said, adding: “A lot of people like larger homes. They want more multigenerational living.”

Rentals are relatively scarce. Houses become available for rent sporadically, along with townhouse units in the Brownstones of Essex Fells complex on Bloomfield Avenue, the borough’s only affordable housing. A two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom apartment was recently offered for $3,400 a month.

The Pond, off Fells Road, is a popular gathering spot in the winter, when it is filled and frozen. Mr. Davis, the mayor, recalled hockey games and annual ice-skating races there, while both Ms. PioCosta-Lahue and her mother, Robin PioCosta-Lahue, have fond memories of skating with friends. “Every single day after school I would go to the skating pond,” Robin PioCosta-Lahue said.

Other well-trafficked public spaces include Grover Cleveland Park, which the borough shares with Caldwell, and the Trotter Tract woodland trail, near the playing fields at Egan Field, where Robin PioCosta-Lahue likes to walk her three dogs. Both are in the northwestern part of town.

Social activities, including auctions and picnics, are offered through local groups like the Parent Teacher Association and volunteer fire department. Many residents belong to the Essex Fells Country Club, on Devon Road, or the Fells Brook Club, which has tennis courts and a pool, on Fells Road.

Essex Fells School, on Hawthorne Road, is one of the state’s top-ranked public schools for math and reading proficiency. Around 250 students are enrolled there, in prekindergarten through sixth grade. In-person learning has continued through the pandemic, in large part because of the small class sizes.

The West Essex Regional School District serves middle and high school students in Essex Fells, along with those in neighboring Fairfield, North Caldwell and Roseland.

West Essex High School offers several Advanced Placement classes to its more than 1,100 students, and has a 97 percent graduation rate. Average SAT scores for the 2018-19 school year were 579 in reading and writing and 588 in math, compared with 539 and 541 statewide.

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

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

Mr. Grossman, who also takes the PATH train, said he was able to shave 10 to 15 minutes off his previous commute to the financial district from Montclair, where he took a New Jersey Transit train to the PATH train in Hoboken. Some commuters to Midtown or Upper Manhattan opt for the 40-minute ride on New Jersey Transit from Montclair to Pennsylvania Station.

Bus service, on the DeCamp Bus Lines, is not currently an option, as service was suspended over the summer because of low ridership.

Once part of Caldwell Township, Essex Fells was incorporated as a separate borough in 1902. Its name is derived from Essex County and from John R. Fell, the majority shareholder of the development company responsible for planning the community. (“Fells” also refers to the area’s hilly terrain.)

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

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

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