Town By Town: National Park: Close-knit and a prime river view
One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in the region's communities.
Along with Westville and Gloucester, National Park appears on the sign for Exit 23, one of the choices for travelers heading south on I-295 in Gloucester County.
Yet as most National Park residents will tell you, few travelers ever venture a couple of miles down Red Bank Avenue to check out what native K'leen Cucugliello calls one of the "nicest towns around."
That's too bad, because the borough drips history and also has one of the best river views around.
When the Queen Elizabeth 2 sailed up the Delaware for Philadelphia's 300th anniversary in 1982, Cucugliello recalls, 30,000 people filled National Park to watch the ship at what is probably the biggest and most unobstructed spot on the river.
Recently, Cucugliello, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach, sold a three-bedroom/three-bath house on Bluff Road - 30 feet above the river - for $355,000. It was the most expensive house ever sold in National Park, she says, and was so out of the real estate ballpark that "it took six appraisals to make the sale price."
This is a town where the houses are small and older, prices range from $50,000 to $230,000, and typically average $140,000 to $160,000, she says.
Property taxes on the $355,000 house were just $10,000 a year, a bargain, says Weichert Realtors agent Deb Andrews, who lives in West Deptford, on the other side of Woodbury Creek from National Park.
Yet "a house that sells for $99,000 could have property taxes as high as $7,000 a year," says Andrews, who sells in the borough and is based in Weichert's Mullica Hill office. "There are just a few businesses and no industry, and that places a burden on home sales."
Cucugliello agrees higher taxes are a problem, especially for the first-time buyers for whom these houses would be ideal.
But she adds: "We really do get good service from the borough. It is really safe here."
Most houses are three-bedroom ranchers from the 1950s and 1960s. On average, 30 houses sell each year, although Andrews puts 2013 sales thus far at 10 - "not a banner year."
"The last house I sold here was in March for $115,000," more typical of sale prices, Andrews says. "Back in a better market, a newer house went for about $300,000."
Both agents note that there are just a couple of dozen houses for sale at present. Cucugliello said nine of those are short sales, in which the lender agrees to take less than is owed on the mortgage - a legacy of the inflated prices of the housing boom, aggravated by big tax bills.
Close to 50 percent of National Park's homes have flood insurance, Cucugliello says. Houses along Bluff Road are well above the Delaware, "but there have been times when children along River Road were taken by boat to catch the school bus."
Let's make one thing clear: National Park is not a national park, though it does include an important historical site - Gloucester County's Red Bank Battlefield on Hessian Avenue, the site of Fort Mercer on the Delaware.
On Oct. 22, 1777, a contingent of Hessian soldiers landed at Cooper's Ferry in Camden from Philadelphia, camped in Haddonfield, and marched downriver to attack the fort, where it was repulsed with heavy losses by a smaller Colonial force.
Today, the battlefield is a 44-acre county park with a monument and the James and Ann Whitall House, a Georgian-style farmhouse built in 1748 and the place where the Hessians' commander breathed his last.
"They just had their Colonial Christmas," Cucugliello says. "There are events throughout the year at the park, and they usually draw just about everyone in National Park."
Four generations of the Whitall family occupied the house for 114 years, and modern residents tend to stay put as well.
"A lot of my buyers are returning after living elsewhere," Andrews says. "Everyone knows everyone else, and unlike a lot of other places, they want to come back."
Cucugliello's father put down roots when he was discharged after World War II, and like many of the men here, he worked in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, taking a ferry to and from work.
The fact that it was a blue-collar town and had more than its share of bars (fewer now, says Cucugliello) brought National Park a reputation of being rough-and-tumble in the 1950s and '60s.
In fact, it was and is a close-knit family community. Cucugliello's daughter, nephew, and other relatives live near the house she and her husband bought after living elsewhere for a while.
"A few families here account for as much as 40 percent of the population" she notes. "I tell sellers to tell their neighbors, because someone in the family might be interested."
Back to the name: Why is this town called National Park?
In 1895, Methodist minister James Lake commercially developed "National Park on the Delaware" as a religious resort, along the lines of his Ocean City. An amusement park followed, with more non-Methodists coming by ferry from Philadelphia to relax and swim and boat.
About 100 cottages were built in the middle of town. Many later were converted to permanent residences or razed. But the name stuck, although "where they held their revival meeting is now our football field," Cucugliello says.
By the Numbers
Population: 3,036 (2010)
Area: 1.45 square miles
Homes for sale: 25
Settlements in the last three months: 5
Median days on market: 189
Median price (all homes): $112,500
Housing stock: A few pre-World War II cottages converted to full-time use; ranchers from the 1950s and 1960s; some infill construction
School district: National Park Elementary; Gateway Regional
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau; City-Data.com; Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach HomExpert; Borough of National Park