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A Clam Town, Coming Out of Its Shell

Published: August 22, 2008

END beachgoers lately find themselves inching through Highlands, N.J., if they move at all. Charming but obsolete, the 76-year-old drawbridge over the Shrewsbury River linking Highlands to Sandy Hook is being replaced with a fixed-span bridge, and the waterfront is cluttered with construction cranes and orange traffic cones.

The project is scheduled to go on for the next two summers, said Anna Little, the part-time mayor of Highlands, a Monmouth County borough of about 5,000. That might not make the town seem so desirable now, but consider this: those who live in Highlands are close enough to walk, jog, pedal, paddle or even take a water taxi to the beach.

The proximity to the beach and Sandy Hook Bay, which Highlands nestles up to, is one reason that Jane Henning, 45, an investment banker, decided to move here from the East Village in January 2007. She paid $323,000 for a two-bedroom condominium four blocks from the SeaStreak Ferry, which provides service to and from Manhattan. “You could fit my old apartment into my master bedroom now,” she said.

At first, she said, her Manhattan friends predicted they would never set foot on the ferry to make the 20-mile 40-minute trip to visit her. Now they come all the time. “It was like, ‘Jersey? I can’t go to Jersey,’” Ms. Henning said, laughing. “But when they get there, all of them say, ‘Where has this place been?’ ”

In July, after commuting to work on the ferry, Ms. Henning decided to make a career change, opening a clothing boutique, Posh on First, in Atlantic Highlands, the next town over, to the west. She is not the first ex-New Yorker to start a business in the Bayshore region, which extends from Raritan Bay east to Sandy Hook.

Highlands, part of it perched on a bluff topped by the castlelike 150-year-old Twin Lights Lighthouse, is a picturesque town with a colorful past of explorers, pirates and, most recently, clammers. But a recent influx of New Yorkers has helped the town shuck that scruffy image, or maybe enhance it.

“We’re much more than a clam town now,” said Lorraine Goode, who moved to Highlands 26 years ago and reared three children in a house on the bluff.

Highlands, which is about three-quarters of a square mile in size, now has 20 restaurants. Such beloved seafood houses as Bahrs Landing Restaurant and Marina, and Doris and Ed’s, have been joined by an Irish pub and a Mexican restaurant laying claim to a stock of more than 150 tequilas.

But the annual street fair known as Clamfest (which has a clam-shucking contest) still took place last month, and the hardware store is the unofficial gathering place. Many of the bungalows and fishing houses in the downtown area are being renovated, rather than replaced, and residents like the fact that the town is not becoming too citified.

A year ago, Lisa and Paul Steine, who have three children and live about an hour away in the Essex County town of Bloomfield, paid $240,000 for a two-bedroom fishing house on property near Sandy Hook Bay that included what Ms. Steiner called “a dilapidated shed,” which they turned into a studio apartment. They have been thinking about making Highlands their primary home.

The bridge project, according to Ms. Steiner and other residents — both new and longtime — is a necessary evil. Although the new bridge will not be as pretty, it will move traffic through town and make Highlands even more appealing than it has become recently.

“We’re next to the bay, and we have seen these huge orange sunsets setting over the water,” said Ms. Steiner. “Where can you see sunsets over the water in New Jersey?”

Route 36, the two-lane state highway to Sandy Hook, runs east and west, and essentially bisects the town. To the north, along Sandy Hook Bay, is the old clamming village, with Bay Avenue as its thoroughfare. It has many restaurants, plus old standbys like the hardware store and municipal building.

Bahrs is on the water, next to Moby’s Lobster Deck. The marinas and Windansea, a bar-restaurant with live entertainment, line Shrewsbury Avenue, which cuts off Bay Avenue and follows the shore. Although nightlife is more abundant than before, Mayor Little described the town as generally quiet.

To the south are residential streets, lined with wood and brick houses, that wind up the hill overlooking the drawbridge, the bay, Sandy Hook and the ocean. Houses on the water and houses with views are the most expensive, but there are more affordable houses, too.

“We’re a welcoming community,” said Ms. Little, a Middletown, N.J., native and mother of three who moved to Highlands in 1998 and became mayor in January. “We want people to come because we like the way we are now.”

There were 44 houses listed in Highlands earlier this month on momls.com, the Monmouth County Association of Realtors Web site. Prices ranged from $130,000, for a two-bedroom 1920 house described as needing a handyman, to $2.5 million, for a refurbished six-bedroom waterfront home built in 1885.

Thirteen of the 44 were listed in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range. According to the realtors association, the median price of a single-family house in July was $335,000, versus $253,750 in July 2007. The average time on the market for sales that closed in July was 88 days, versus 121 days in July 2007.

A three-bedroom house on Miller Street, renovated in 2006 and listed for $394,999, carried a 2007 tax bill of $4,167. A two-bedroom house with 90 feet on the water and views of the harbor and New York was listed at $739,000 and had a 2007 tax bill of $13,954.

If you go elsewhere outside Highlands,” said Mara Browndorf of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in neighboring Rumson, “taxes are much higher.”

Patricia Renner, the broker-manager at the Highlands office of Heritage House Sotheby’s International, has seen a slight upturn recently in the number of interested buyers, the bridge project notwithstanding. She said buyers from New York and Staten Island believe they are getting a good value.

“They’re making the town so much more upscale, and they’re doing something for the whole Bayshore area,” said Ginger Paraboschi, manager of Dana Realty, of the new arrivals.

Many of the outdoor activities around Highlands have something to do with water: boating, fishing, swimming, sunbathing, kayaking, birding. For those who do not want to wander over to Sandy Hook, Highlands has two bayside beaches with lifeguards.

The water taxi also provides a certain degree of entertainment. After diners put their names on a list for a table at a restaurant in town, they sometimes climb aboard the taxi for a short cruise around the bay.

There is a farmers’ market on Saturday. And near the top of the bluff is Hartshorne Woods Park, which has trails of varying difficulty for hiking or biking. “It’s not crowded, and it’s very relaxing,” Ms. Goode said. “You’re out in nature, and it’s set up very nicely.”

For prekindergarten through sixth grade, there is the Highlands School, which has a student body of about 200. Average class size in the academic year ending in 2007 was 13.1, versus 19.1 statewide. Average class size for sixth-graders was 10.5, versus 21.1 statewide.

For Grades 7 through 12, there is the Henry Hudson Regional School, which serves neighboring Atlantic Highlands as well. The senior class had 63 members.

SAT averages for the year ended in 2007 were 470 in math, 487 in reading and 464 in writing, compared with 509, 491 and 489 statewide. The class of 2007 had a 97.2 percent graduation rate, versus 92.3 percent statewide.

Three SeaStreak (seastreak.com) ferries depart on weekday mornings from the Conner’s Ferry Landing. The trip to Pier 11 in Manhattan, near Wall Street, takes 40 minutes. The ferry continues to East 35th Street, an additional 15 minutes. Six ferries depart from Pier 11 between 4 and 8 p.m. The round-trip peak fare is $45; a ticket for 40 one-way trips costs $700. Parking at the Conner’s Ferry Landing is free.

Academy Bus provides regular weekday and weekend service from Highlands to Wall Street and to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The trip takes about 90 minutes one-way. Ten-trip tickets are $85; a monthly pass is $280.

Giovanni da Verrazano sailed past Highlands in 1524, according to a local history written in 1975 by James W. Brydon. Henry Hudson first sailed into Sandy Hook Bay in 1609, seeking spring water from the hills before sailing up the river later named after him.

In April 1948, a lobsterman found gold coins on the beach off Cedar Street. They were determined to be from a British frigate that sank in the bay in 1744.