West Milford, N.J.: ‘A Real Country Town’ Close to the City
Barbara and Peter Tirado spent 37 years in Queens, but when their daughter married and moved to New Jersey, they decided to follow her across the Hudson River.
“We couldn’t afford to live on the ocean, so we decided to live on a lake,” said Ms. Tirado, 65, a retired reading tutor. In 2017, she and Mr. Tirado, also 65 and retired from owning a plumbing-supply business, paid $557,000 for a three-bedroom house on Pinecliff Lake, in the township of West Milford, N.J. It reminded them of a second home they had once owned in Vermont.
“It’s so peaceful. I watch the sun rise, the ducks, the geese, the eagles and the hawks,” Ms. Tirado said.
Sprawling over 75 square miles in northwest Passaic County, about 40 miles from Times Square, West Milford offers abundant lakes and open spaces, including Abram S. Hewitt State Forest, Apshawa Preserve and parts of Wawayanda State Park and Norvin Green State Forest. Its largest body of water is Greenwood Lake, which straddles the New Jersey-New York border.
“For being so close to the city, it’s a real country town,” said Dennis J. Decina, a longtime resident and a Re/Max agent in West Milford.
Many of the township’s 26,000 residents build their weekends around swimming, boating, fishing and hiking. Doug Zayat, 39, a digital-marketing manager, lives near Belcher Creek and likes to steer his pontoon down the creek to Greenwood Lake. He and his former wife and two sons moved to the township from nearby Wanaque in 2017, paying $275,000 for a four-bedroom house. Mr. Zayat, who studied photography in college, began photographing West Milford’s wildlife and scenery, and now shares his work on Instagram and Facebook.
Bubbling Springs is a 40-acre township park that offers swimming, hiking and fishing.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
“There’s always something to see in West Milford — the beautiful landscapes of mountains and lakes, or a bobcat in your yard,” Mr. Zayat said.
Or maybe a bear. “Our fence has been knocked down three times by bears,” said Andrew Quirk, 63, a physical therapist who has lived on Upper Greenwood Lake since 2013 with his wife, Patricia Quirk, 62, who manages his physical-therapy office in Maplewood.
But Mr. Quirk, a hiker, bird-watcher and boater, said they are grateful to live immersed in nature. “We love to go out on the boat and watch the sun go down over the lake, and wait for the stars to come out,” Mr. Quirk said.
Brett Devenney, who works in law enforcement in Bergen County, and his wife, Katelin Devenney, a former office manager who now stays home with their baby daughter, initially looked at houses in Bergen County, where they grew up. But the couple, both 32, turned to West Milford because it was more affordable, paying $283,000 for a small lakeside house in November 2018, and spending $30,000 on improvements.
Mr. Devenney likes to sit on the dock, look at the water, and “not hear anything but nature,” he said.
What You’ll Find
West Milford’s housing stock includes cottages built as summer getaways, luxury lakefront homes, large colonials in newer subdivisions and midcentury split-levels, Cape Cods and ranches. Buyers looking for something different can find log cabins in some of the lake neighborhoods.
Because the township is so large, many residents find their sense of belonging in their neighborhoods, which include Hewitt, Macopin and lake communities like Upper Greenwood Lake and Pinecliff Lake. “Each lake community is like its own small town,” said Julia Gaffney, a longtime resident and an agent with Keller Williams Prosperity Realty, in Wayne.
Most of the township is served by well water and septic systems, although a handful of subdivisions have public water and sewer service.
Like other exurban communities, West Milford has seen an influx of buyers from more congested areas, including New York City and Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties, during the pandemic. “Once Covid hit, a lot of people were looking for a getaway home to quarantine there,” said Mark Werner, the broker and owner of Werner Realty, who has lived in West Milford all his life. “What’s better than being out in the woods or on a lakefront?”
Many sales were for second homes, Mr. Werner said: “With Covid, a lot of people aren’t getting on planes for vacation. They’re looking for a destination that’s a drive instead of a flight.”
And some who already owned second homes in West Milford moved there year-round during the pandemic, Mr. Decina said: “They were working from home, so why not?”
What You’ll Pay
As a result of the new demand, “the market is extremely hot” in West Milford, with sales most active in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, Mr. Werner said.
A mid-September check of the Garden State Multiple Listing Service found 105 listings, from a two-bedroom log cabin listed for $79,000 to a seven-bedroom colonial on 14 acres listed for $1.4 million.
According to the multiple listing service, during the year ending on Aug. 15, 409 single-family homes sold in West Milford, for a median price of $333,250. During the same period in the previous year, 451 properties sold for a median price of $275,000.
The inventory of homes for sale has fallen significantly from prepandemic levels. On Aug. 15, the multiple listing service showed 97 homes for sale, down from 230 around the same time two years earlier.
One of West Milford’s largest annual events is the Greenwood Lake Air Show, held at Greenwood Lake Airport, featuring stunt pilots and historic aircraft.
Popular eating and drinking establishments include Luc’s on the Lake, Ralph Spice, Mario’s Deli, Grasshopper Irish Pub and the Vreeland Store. Shops, restaurants and three shopping centers are largely concentrated along busy Union Valley Road, south of Greenwood Lake.
Because of the township’s size, generally “you don’t go out of your house and walk to the center of town,” Ms. Gaffney said.
The West Milford Township School District serves about 3,100 students. The district has six elementary schools; Macopin Middle School for seventh and eighth grades; West Milford High School for ninth through 12th grades; and Highlander Academy School for high school-level special-education students.
The district’s student body is 86.5 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic, 1.3 percent Black and 1.4 percent Asian.
Close to 1,000 students attend West Milford High School, where SAT scores for the 2019-20 school year were 540 in reading and writing and 517 in math, compared with state averages of 536 in each.
New Jersey Transit runs buses to Manhattan from the West Milford park-and-ride lot on Greenwood Lake Turnpike. The trip takes an hour to an hour and a half, depending on whether it is an express bus. The one-way fare is $13; the monthly fare is $303.
The drive to Midtown takes a little over an hour without traffic, but much longer during rush hour. Commuters driving to other parts of New Jersey and New York can take Route 23 or Skyline Drive, in neighboring Ringwood, to reach Interstate 287.
Wild animals once roamed the woods of West Milford, in the Warner Bros. safari park known as Jungle Habitat. Starting in 1972, visitors could drive through the 800-acre property and see lions, rhinos, zebras, baboons and other animals roaming free. That year, one visitor made the mistake of opening his car window and was mauled by a lion, and there were occasional reports of escaped peacocks and wolves in the township.
Although it drew hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, the theme park was unprofitable, and Warner Bros. shut it down in 1976. The state bought the land in the late 1980s for $1.45 million, and opened it as parkland. It now is used by hikers and mountain bikers, who occasionally find the remnants of old animal enclosures — but apparently no exotic animals — in the woods.
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