If it hasn't already become obvious, I'm intrigued by planned communities. There's something fascinating about an enclave where people choose to live together based on a common noble belief, as long as it's benign.
Such is the story of Free Acres, a 70-acre residential community nestled in the Watchung Mountains. Roads barely wider than a driveway will bring you through a peaceful wooded settlement of homes, some bungalows, others the size of an average subdivision house. Just inside the boundaries from the outside road is a two-story red farmhouse, which serves as the community gathering place.
Founded in 1910 by a preacher's son named Bolton Hall, Free Acres was started as an experiment of the "single tax" philosophy of Henry George. A writer and economist by trade, George believed in the common ownership of land for the community's benefit. Or, as the association constitution says, "all shall be mutually helpful and free from all forms of monopoly of natural resources, in order to secure to all equality of opportunity and a full reward of efforts." Land was considered a mutual birthright of humankind, to managed democratically.
Hall purchased the Murphy farm on the border of Berkeley Heights and Watchung, dividing it into lots that homeowners lease from the community association. Residents aren't required to be advocates of the single tax concept, only to adhere to community rules. Land-based regulations have been modified from the Hall concept over the years, but the general concept remains. Each lease is a 99 year contract, which resets every time a lot is transferred to a new lessee through inheritance or purchase of the home on it. Lease fees go into into a fund to maintain common roads, the farmhouse and community pool, as well as paying local property tax on the 70 acres. If costs of managing the community rise, the annual fee goes up for each renter, regardless of any improvements made by the lessee on his or her lot. Homeowners pay local taxes to the municipality, based on the value of their houses.
The common ownership concept has some interesting byproducts: residents are forbidden to build fences, and no trees can be cut down without permission from the association.
Business aside, Free Acres started as a summer colony with an artsy feel, with about 50 people summering there by 1920. Performers like Victor Kilian and a then-unknown James Cagney joined writers like journalist Konrad Bercovici and fantasy novelist Thorne Smith, raising tents in what must have felt like a heavenly respite from the sweltering New York summers. Borrowing from the theories of Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, residents created guilds to manage their many dramatic and artistic pursuits within the community.
Eventually, as we've seen from our travels to Mt. Tabor and Pitman, residents started building small shacks, many of which were winterized during the Great Depression. Though there was no common religious belief as there was in those other communities, Free Acre-ites enjoyed good fellowship and an enjoyment of their surroundings. In fact, it may be that the lack of a stated ideology was what keeps Free Acres vibrant to this day, while so many other utopian communities have organized and disbanded in New Jersey.
When I drove through Free Acres last week, I found the enclave surrounded by, yet separate from, the suburban community that's grown up around it. The feel was very much like a small summer community somewhere in the Poconos. Narrow roads and a 15 mile per hour speed limit definitely slow things down, but you really don't feel in a hurry while you're there. And even with the trees still lacking leaves, the embrace of nature brings an almost magical feeling to the place.
The reality of late 20th century development has had its mark on the community, though. Several of the bungalows have clearly been expanded substantially, and some residents have started from scratch and built larger homes that look as if they'd be better suited to the surrounding tract developments. Unfortunately, the property was also affected by the construction of Route 78; a buffer of woods and a sound barrier do their best to tamp the audible rush of traffic in the distance.
Still, Free Acres has its nirvana-like aspects and surely has a calming effect on those who live there. If you want your home to be a placid retreat within an easy commute to Manhattan, it's hard to imagine where else you could settle. It may no longer be a place where free spirits go to avoid the woes of a flawed world, but it's one place where you can have good neighbors without fences.