The large number of municipalities in New Jersey has sparked a great deal of discussion about the perils of home rule and the benefits of consolidation as a way to save money. Yet there’s a deeper level of illogicality to many municipalities — geography.
Much has been said about New Jersey’s donuts and holes — townships that completely surround boroughs or other municipalities. Forgetting those, there are still a lot of weird geographically delineated municipalities. A number of them have an exclave — a piece of land not connected to a main section — and three or four, depending on the definition of “connected” have two exclaves. Like most other things having to do with politics in New Jersey, the individual circumstances can be a little fuzzy.
But there is one constant in describing all of the municipalities on the list: All are to some extent the result of laws passed by the state Legislature in the late 1800s. One law made it easier for a group of residents to break away from a large township — then the predominant form of government. Another made them want to do so. Essentially, it took away local control of individual schools while at the same time forcing people to pay for schools their children did not attend. Some have termed this period — from 1894 to the Great Depression — boroughitis or borough fever.
Truly the strangest geographical layout, this Bergen county township is composed of three distinct sections, each separated from the others by two or three other municipalities. The main section, which includes its school and municipal building, is just south of, yes, Hackensack.
About 1.9 miles to the east, through Teterboro, Hasbrouck Heights, and Lodi, is a small area that includes a couple of streets, railroad tracks, and a cemetery. From there, it’s a 3-mile trip southeast to South Hackensack, part 3, a triangular sliver of industrial land between Carlstadt, Little Ferry, and Moonachie.
Why would anyone create a municipality in three separate sections miles apart? South Hackensack is essentially what was left when pieces of Lodi Township broke off to form individual municipalities or join other municipalities between 1840 and 1917. In 1935, voters changed the name from Lodi Township to South Hackensack.
Egg Harbor Township
This nearly 75-square mile Atlantic County municipality is a close second to South Hackensack, with two exclaves. The largest section is on the mainland, with the Garden State Parkway, Atlantic City Expressway, and Route 40 cutting through. The traveler who heads east would travel through Northfield, Linwood, or Somers Point before, again, reaching land that is part of Egg Harbor Township.
Most of this area is uninhabited, marshy islands, which those who formed the cities did not want. Then there’s a section of Black Horse Pike just west of Atlantic City jutting into Pleasantville, with both residences and businesses, that also remained in the township. Like South Hackensack, Egg Harbor Township today is what remains after 10 smaller communities — from Atlantic City in 1854 through Northfield in 1905 — broke away.
Haddon Township, in Camden County, is also split into three sections, although the two smaller sections — one kite-shaped and the other a sort-of-triangle — have points that touch.
Westmont, the largest portion of the 2.8-square mile township, has a point along White Horse Pike that is not quite a mile from the spot where the two West Collingswood sections touch on Black Horse Pike. The geographic anomaly is the result of numerous municipalities breaking away — five sections left between 1901 and 1905 alone. Haddon Township and Collingswood traded land back and forth between the 1920s and 1950s. Collingswood, Oaklyn, Audubon, and Audubon Park separate Westmont from its two exclaves. Unlike many of the other divided municipalities on this list, Haddon Township’s sections are all well-populated. The township has about 14,700 residents.
The state’s 16th most-populous municipality is also broken into three sections, sort of.
Highlands Borough separates Middletown from Sandy Hook, the 6-mile long barrier spit that is one of the state’s unique geographic features. The federal park with a famous lighthouse and former Army post is technically reachable from mainland Middletown without leaving the township, but only via water. About 30 percent of Middletown’s 59 square miles is water. But then there’s a third section of the township located in Keansburg , a small neighborhood of only about 13 acres separated from the majority of Middletown by a baseball field. Another strange feature of the township’s boundary is a thin section of land shaped like a pennant on a pole along the Henry Hudson Bike Trail.
A 22-square mile-township in Sussex County, Byram includes a roughly 33-acre small exclave of woodlands on the border of Lake Musconetcong. The area is about a mile away as the crow flies through Stanhope. Known as Byram Island, it’s a piece of orphaned land that neither Stanhope nor Hopatcong took when they broke away from Byram. The property is state-owned land and accessible only via the lake or the Lackawanna Cutoff. (The census map does not show the section.)
Matawan borough looks like a large jagged swath cut through this township that fronts Keyport Harbor. The arrowhead-shaped section to the west of Matawan is largely undeveloped. Formerly known as Matawan Township, Aberdeen was divided when portions broke away to form Matawan borough in 1895, with additional lands moving to the borough in 1931 and 1933. The two sections of Aberdeen are separated by a piece of Matawan borough that is only about a third of a mile wide. In 1977, voters changed the name of the township to Aberdeen, which is alphabetically the first municipality in New Jersey. The 7.7-square-mile township has a population of about 18,000. Aberdeen and Matawan share a school district.
Barely touching Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County, Weymouth is another largely separated township. First formed in Gloucester County in 1798, Weymouth lost land and moved to Atlantic County in the 1800s, then lost more land in the 1920s and again in 1957. Estelle Manor is the final piece that broke away and now separates the smaller section of Weymouth to the east — bounded by the Greater Egg Harbor and South rivers and including Belcoville — from the larger area that includes Dorothy. About 2,700 people live in its 12.5 square miles.
This sprawling 45-square-mile municipality in Morris County has a small, jagged section jutting into Dover to its south that just touches the rest of Rockaway at a point at Route 15 and Mount Pleasant Avenue. The area contains a section of a residential neighborhood that would otherwise seem to belong to Dover. The larger, main section of the township, north of Route 80, includes Picatinny Arsenal and some of the largest stretches of forestland in the Highlands region. In total, the township’s population is about 24,000.
Part of the reason Berkeley is such a strangely shaped township in Ocean County has to do with water. It is situated just south of Toms River, the township and the river, and Barnegat Bay separates its mainland section from its barrier island section. There is no road leading from the mainland to the island section, but it’s possible to take a boat across the bay. The 10-mile long barrier island section that ends at Barnegat Inlet is mostly preserved state parkland, but just north of the park and south of Seaside Park is a community known as South Seaside Park that belongs to Berkeley. Because Berkeley’s border extends into the Toms River, it technically serves as the donut for tiny Ocean Gate, a less than a half-square-mile riverfront community. There is also a chunk missing from what would seem to be the township’s natural northern border from the exodus in the early 1900s of South Toms River, Beachwood. and Pine Beach.
Because a list like this wouldn’t be complete without a case of a donut-and-hole, Sussex Borough takes the 10th spot. Why Sussex, instead of numerous other such borough-surrounded-by-township geographies? Its shape. Depending on the source map, Sussex Borough appears to be a near perfect octagon, a small stop sign near the top of New Jersey.
The perfection of that shape is unclear, however, since some maps credit Wantage Township, which surrounds Sussex Borough, with ownership of Clove Acres Lake, which juts into the borough. Sussex was formed out of Wantage in 1891 and originally named Deckertown. Sussex and Wantage share a school district, but, like many other donut-hole pairings, could not agree to merge their municipal functions into one community: In 2009, Wantage voters said they did not want Sussex back.