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Four Bergen County towns cited as 'best for families' by magazine

If you want to live in a community with great schools, a low crime rate, lovely parks and a quick commute to work in Manhattan, it helps if you have deep pockets.

That's one conclusion to be drawn from the ratings of four Bergen County communities in New Jersey Family magazine's "Best Towns for Families" in 2015.

All have high property taxes. But what those communities do with that money is also a key factor in the ratings.

Oradell, Closter, Harrington Park and Demarest outpaced most of the state's 565 municipalities in such features as quality of schools and recreational offerings, crime rate and travel time to Manhattan.

Oradell, in the No. 2 spot, after Pennington in Mercer County, earned high praise for quaint Victorian-style homes, a downtown with uncommon shops, recreation for all ages, and a commute to Manhattan of less than 50 minutes during rush hour via NJ Transit. Closter ranked No. 5, Harrington Park ranked 6 and Demarest was 10th. Click here for the full list

The magazine's April issue analyzed data from such sources as the state Division of Taxation for average tax rates and average home sale prices, the state Department of Law and Safety for crime rates and the Great Schools website for public school rankings.

Great Schools, which examines academic excellence, class size and college readiness among other factors, gave top scores to Closter, Oradell and Harrington Park for their elementary schools and Demarest for its middle school.

The state Department of Law and Public Safety reports that in February 2014, two non-violent crimes occurred in Closter and six in Oradell, while Demarest had none and Harrington Park one during the same period.

"We weighted the towns in a way that we thought approximated the way people think about what makes a great town," said Liz Zack, editorial director at New Jersey Family magazine. Three factors figured prominently: safety, quality of schools and affordability, she said.

The article has fast become a favorite among leaders in the cited communities.

Oradell Mayor Joseph Murray was delighted: "I've lived in Oradell since 1971 and raised five children here. Oradell does have a good location, an excellent school system, nice parks and a nice atmosphere." He conceded, however, that taxes are a problem. "That's mostly because we are involved in a regional school district. But the municipal taxes are low. We keep a tight rein on what it costs to run the town."

Demarest Police Chief James Powderley asserted that the borough's ultra-low crime rate cannot be attributed to any one factor. He's launched various initiatives, including state-of-the-art technologies, to assist his department. For example, police cruisers have on-board computers, and the force received a national award for its anonymous WeTip hotline, which has led to many arrests. The borough has a full-time school resource officer and school security officers. The police force also uses special officers for traffic control and other duties. And County Police enhance investigations and can help with patrols. "We are a proactive agency," Powderley said. "Programs like this help."

In Closter, which has six recreational fields and a nature center, youth sports programs are a staple. The Recreation Commission offers a Challenger League in basketball, baseball, soccer and horseback riding for children ages 5-22 with special needs. There also are free summer sports for elementary school-aged children, said Jim Oettinger, Recreation Department director.

Oradell, which earned praise for a downtown that offers a diverse fare for consumers, has come a long way, said Richard Joel Jr., president of the Oradell Chamber of Commerce: "There's always new businesses coming in. It's not chain store-driven, and there's good variety for every type of thing — it's not all banks or nail salons. It keeps a small town charm that's appealing."

Most of the stores, such as Ye Olde Thrift Shoppe Co., Mr. Cupcakes and Cool Beans coffee shop, are of the mom-and-pop variety. The Bergen County Players, a community theater on Kinderkamack Road, the main artery through town, also helps bring customers into the stores, he said. There's plenty of parking along streets and in municipal lots, and the borough has undertaken beautification projects such as repaving roads and installing sidewalks and street lamps. "It's been a group effort. They've made it a good place," Joel said.

But such attention comes at a price. The cited communities also could top a list for high property taxes: Last year, Oradell's average was $13,174, Harrington Park's $14,000, Closter's $14,179, and Demarest's $17,391. And the assessed valuations of the homes themselves factored into that: In Closter, the average is $671,900, in Demarest $730,000, in Harrington Park $538,000. Oradell's average is the lowest: $473,992. And those averages are in communities where many homes have four or more bedrooms and market values of $1 million to $2 million.

It is telling that a study by Smart Asset, which ranked affordability in the state, did not list any towns in Bergen or Passaic counties. The top ranking went to Clayton, in Gloucester County, where property taxes average $5,110.

Closter Mayor John Glidden shrugged at such comparisons, noting that everything is relative.

"There are towns around us whose taxes are much higher, like Englewood and Tenafly. We are probably somewhere in the middle. The quality of life in Closter, in my opinion, is higher."

Homes in Closter may be pricier than, say, in Rockland County, N.Y., or in other parts of the Garden State because it's close to Manhattan, he pointed out. "Taxes are based on property values and the services that everyone demands."


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