The New York Times

If You're Thinking of Living In/Harding Township, N.J.; Open Space, Scenic Beauty, Pricey Homes

PENNY HINKLE likes Harding Township for its volunteer spirit. Wendy Sanford likes Harding because her family has easily made new friends since moving from the city. And everyone who lives in this southern Morris County township treasures the sheer beauty of the place -- rolling hills, open meadows, quiet country roads and hundreds of acres of woods with fox, deer, coyotes and the occasional bear.

''I watched two foxes playing in our back hayfield the other day,'' said Ms. Hinkle, who lives on seven acres of land in the house where she grew up and where she raised her own two children.

Harding is an anomaly in an area where development has increased rapidly to accommodate suburban commuters. The 20-square-mile township is just 27 miles from Manhattan, but more than 40 percent of its area is protected open space, where building is forbidden.

To some degree, this is because of Harding's location. Large parts of two federally protected areas lie within its borders: the 7,000-acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, half within the township's southeast corner, and in the opposite corner the 1,200-acre national historic site Jockey Hollow, mostly inside township lines.

Harding has very few sewers, no water service and zoning that specifies lots can be no less than three acres. Miles of bridle paths wind through the hills, and cows and sheep still graze in the fields.

Township officials have worked hard to keep Harding this way, by persuading estate owners to donate or sell land at reduced prices to the township or to environmental groups to keep it from being developed.

All this rural beauty, however, comes at a price. Harding's real estate is among the most expensive in the state. It has never lost its cachet -- Rockefellers have lived there, United States presidents have visited over the years and it is currently home to several chief executives of Fortune 500 companies.

Houses range from about $500,000 for a small three-bedroom colonial on a busy street to $10 million for a large estate. ''We have tear-downs that are $1 million to $1.5 million,'' said Ned Ward, owner of Ned Ward Realtors in New Vernon, a section of Harding. Mr. Ward, the fifth generation of his family to live in Harding, said there had been a slight slowdown in sales of houses priced at $2 million to $10 million since the Sept. 11 attacks, but those priced in the $1 million range and under were still selling briskly. A house with an asking price of $875,000 recently sold in just a week to the first buyer who saw it, he said.

Sue Strelec, a broker for Coldwell Banker in neighboring Morristown, said: ''Prices have close to doubled in the last five to six years. It's priced out of most people's range.'' Of 45 properties for sale in October, only 12 were under $1 million, she said.

At the other end of the market was a 1956 Southern-style colonial on 4.2 acres for $6.9 million, with six bedrooms, five and a half baths, an outdoor putting green, a built-in cigar humidor, a wine cellar, a walk-in safe and three commercial freezers. Those who can afford the housing say that the tax rate is low, since Harding relies on volunteers to provide many services.

There are a few exceptions to Harding's three-acre zoning rule. In the Mount Kemble Lake area, a summer vacation community developed in 1928, small cottages on 9,000-square-foot lots have been converted to year-round homes surrounding one of Harding's two lakes. Prices here range from $400,000 to $1.2 million, Mr. Ward said.

The two town house developments in Harding, he said, have units selling in the high $300,000 range. There are no apartment buildings or senior citizen housing.

Harding residents spend a lot of time in their cars. There is just one shopping area in Harding: Country Mile on Route 202, where there are a Talbot's, two rug shops, three banks, a deli and other specialty stores. Most people drive to Morristown, Madison or Chatham Township to do their shopping.

For those commuting to Manhattan by car from Harding, the drive is about an hour and 15 minutes, mainly on Route 24. Other commuters drive 5 to 10 minutes to a train station in Madison, Convent Station, Morristown or Basking Ridge and ride the Midtown Direct to Penn Station in about 50 minutes.

One big attraction of the town is the small size of the Harding School, with just 329 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. ''It's run almost like a private school system,'' said Ms. Strelec, who used to live in Harding. ''Everybody knows the teachers, since they all basically live in town. You run into them at the grocery store.''

Class sizes range from 15 to 20. This year's two first grade classes have 19 and 20 students each, with a full-time aide in each class, Dennis Pallozzi, superintendent for the Harding Township School District, said. Last year, a $7 million addition was built to house a new gym, stage and band room. Dr. Pallozzi said about half of the families in Harding send their children to one of the half dozen or so private schools in the area.

Starting in the ninth grade, those in the public school system go to Madison High School in nearby Madison. It has a total of 673 students. Last year, 92 percent of the 162 graduates went on to college. Average College Board scores in 2001 (the latest figures available) were 561 in math and 545 in verbal, compared with the state average of 514 in math and 496 in verbal.

EVIDENCE of Harding's earliest residents -- arrowheads believed to have been used by Lenape Indians -- have been found along Village Road in downtown New Vernon. (Downtown consists of little more than a deli, two banks, three real estate offices and a historic house that has been converted into a museum).

English-speaking settlers arrived around 1730 to farm the land, growing mostly wheat and apples, according to Mary Prendergast, archivist for the Harding Township Historical Society. From the time the merchant Peter Kemble bought 680 acres in Harding and moved there in 1760, the area has been a magnet for the rich and powerful.

Kemble made his fortune in shipping from the port of New Brunswick and once was acting governor of the New Jersey colony. One of his daughters, Margaret, married a British officer, Thomas Gage, who became commander in chief of the British Army early in the Revolution. George Washington paid Kemble a social visit in 1773. Although three of his sons fought for the British, Kemble allowed Washington's army to camp on his land and quartered two American generals at his house during the war. Another son, Richard, took an oath of allegiance to the colonists, preserving the family's land from confiscation.

Kemble's property was sold in 1840 to Henry Hoyt, who moved the original house up the street and built a new Gothic Revival house called Glen Alpin. This later became known as the Princess House, after its owner, the former Doris Mercer. The daughter of a Pittsburgh policeman, she ran away to New York to become a chorus girl, married the dime store multimillionaire Sebastian Kresge, divorced him and then briefly married a Persian prince in Paris before fleeing to America in 1940 and settling in Harding, alone. ''She was lonesome, and one day the Seventh-day Adventists came knocking at her door,'' said Ms. Prendergast. ''She started singing in the choir and then sold them some land across the street to build a church.'' After her death in 1963 at age 74, the house was sold. It is now on the market again -- 22 rooms on 9.5 acres -- for $2.59 million.

One historic property in Harding is being developed under strict limitations meant to reduce the impact on the environment and the rural character of the area. HARTLEY FARMS, a 171-acre estate, was the home of Marcellus Hartley Dodge, chairman of the Remington Arms Company, and his wife, Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, who moved there in 1907, the year they married. Three presidents -- Wilson, Hoover, and Eisenhower -- were visitors to the estate, although not during their presidencies, as was General MacArthur. It is on the National and New Jersey Registers of Historic Places.

Nicolas Platt, great-great-grandson of Marcellus Hartley, is 12 years into a 25-year plan to develop the property, which he said will eventually hold 20 houses on 28 lots. But 75 percent of the property will be kept as open space, including $14 million worth of land given to the New Jersey Audubon Society. The original 12-foot-wide carriage roads, built in the 1880's, remain. Sixteen lots have been sold to date, with six houses occupied and five under construction.

Buyers, who are now paying $2.1 million for three-acre lots, according to Mr. Platt, are limited to 7,000 square feet of livable space (compared with some new construction in Harding that ranges from 10,000 to 14,000 square feet). They are not permitted to use pesticides or cut trees, must build slate or cedar shake roofs, paint shutters black or dark green and install outdoor lighting no brighter than 25 watts. Architectural plans are carefully reviewed to make sure designs are in keeping with the historic nature of the property.

Preservationists are generally pleased with the project. Yet they rarely miss an opportunity to preserve open space, hoping to keep Harding from becoming just another traffic-clogged suburb. ''We've been very aggressive in protecting the land,'' said John Murray, a member of the Township Committee. ''In the early 1990's, the township passed an ordinance that allowed us to accumulate open space with tax funds. We've put aside almost 100 acres in the last 10 years, and we'll close on another 64 acres'' this month.

Harding offers many opportunities to get involved in the community, ranging from the volunteer fire department and first aid squad to the recreation association, civic association, garden club and library. ''We have a wonderful sense of community here,'' said Ms. Hinkle, who is active in the Harding Land Trust, a citizen group dedicated to protecting open space.

Yet many old-timers say Harding is not as friendly as it once was. Bill Dudley, crew chief for the first aid squad and a former fire chief, has a hard time getting volunteers these days. ''We have 30 members now, and we need 50,'' he said. Harriet Hayes, who has lived in Harding all of her 79 years, remembers a time when she knew everyone in town. Not so anymore. ''That has been the biggest change,'' she said.

Yet Wendy Sanford, who moved in three years ago from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has been surprised at how welcoming her neighbors have been. ''When we moved in, people brought us dinner,'' said Ms. Sanford, who has twins in kindergarten and a 2 1/2 year old. ''I've made amazing friends, and so have the kids.''

The New York Times Company