February 1, 2013
A Friend, in Need and Deed (New York Times)
By Lisa Prevost

The town of Monroe has for a long time been intertwined with Newtown, its Fairfield County neighbor to the north-the way towns that share a border often are. Residents of each have regularly crossed town lines without giving it much thought, heading to church, dropping off children at day care, or rushing to make tee time.

The nature of the relationship abruptly intensified in mid-December, on the day a young man forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and shot to death 20 children and 6 school employees. The voids left by the shootings also gaped in Monroe, where everybody seemed to know somebody in Newtown who had been affected. For Steve Vavrek, Monroe's first selectman, the ordeal amplified the towns' connection as never before.

"We found out how close we are," said Mr. Vavrek, who has lived in Monroe for 26 years. "My wife works for Monroe Pediatrics, and they lost five children that day."

Monroe responded by offering up an empty school building to serve temporarily for the surviving Sandy Hook children. The building comes rent-free-Newtown must simply cover the utilities and other interior costs.

Residents also held a fundraiser at the Waterview banquet facility, on the Monroe side of Lake Zoar. It sold out, raising some $50,000 for the victims' families. "The owner donated the food," said Davinder Heslin, one of the organizers. "Someone donated alcohol; the band played for free. At the end of the night, the staff had $1,400 in tips, and they even donated that."

One of many small salves to the devastation wrought by the school shootings, the old-fashioned neighborliness that has been on such full display in Monroe in recent weeks reflects a slightly more tranquil ambience than in the faster-paced Gold Coast towns to the south.

And if tranquillity is one draw, so too are real estate prices more affordable than in lower Fairfield County. "People come here to get more house," said Marie Spanbauer, an agent with William Raveis Real Estate and a longtime Monroe resident.

That was true of Ms. Heslin and her husband, Jack, when they moved with their young son from Trumbull in 2008. Then commuting, respectively, to Fairfield and across the New York border to White Plains, they had hoped to stay in Trumbull, but learned they could get more land in Monroe. They bought what has come to be the quintessential Monroe property, a four-bedroom colonial on an acre, for $490,000.

Shortly after that, the stock market crashed and home values dipped precipitously. But they appear to be recovering: Monroe's current median sale price of $384,900 is up about 5.5 percent from the 2011 median, according to William Raveis.

Buyers here won't find the plethora of cultural events and dining options available in pricier towns like Fairfield and Westport. Life in Monroe tends to revolve around the schools and outdoor recreation. Single-family homes on large lots set the tone, as the absence of public sewer lines limits density. Lot size is typically one to three acres. Rentals are scarce, accounting for fewer than 7 percent of all housing units.

"We cater to families," Ms. Spanbauer said. "Someone who is single, without kids, is not attracted to Monroe."

What You'll Find

Covering 26 square miles, Monroe is about 75 percent developed, according to the town's Plan of Conservation and Development. The population has remained fairly static over the last decade, hovering just below 20,000.

Most housing was built after 1940. Ranches, split-levels and colonials abound, but Cape Cods do not, Ms. Spanbauer noted. High-end subdivisions, with newer colonials sited irregularly on hilly terrain, are on the western side of town, which has had more available land and is near Route 25, a commuter thoroughfare. Roughly 250 homes dating to the 1980s are clustered around the 18-hole Whitney Farms Golf Course, a public course closer to the center of town. Historic properties can be found in Monroe Center, a designated historic district distinguished by a green and an Episcopal church dating to Thomas Jefferson's presidency.

Rather than a concentrated commercial center, Monroe has long expanses of strip malls and shopping plazas along Routes 25 and 111. Independently owned businesses, like Dr. Mike's Ice Cream and the newly opened Monroe Diner, maintain a strong presence amid chain stores like Rite Aid and Starbucks. Clothing stores are lacking, but shoppers have two supermarkets to choose from: Stop & Shop and Big Y.

Some 1,324 acres are preserved as open space. Much of that is contained within three public parks, the largest of them William E. Wolfe Park. "What I have truly enjoyed at Wolfe Park are the trails," Ms. Heslin said. "They keep it beautifully clean."

What You'll Pay

At the end of January, just over 70 single-family homes were listed, a very low inventory for Monroe, according to Lawren Hubal, an agent with Re/Max Right Choice. Prices ranged from $57,900, for a modest summer cottage, to $799,999 for a newer six-bedroom five-bath colonial.

"The high $300s are selling the most right now," Ms. Hubal said. The bulk of properties are listed in the $420,00-to-$500,000 range, which creates a dearth of options for higher-end buyers as well. "I have two clients looking in the $600,000 range," she said, "and I can't find them a house."

There were 15 condominiums on the market at the two complexes in town. Prices ranged from $79,500 to $275,000, for mostly one- and two-bedroom units.

Homes near Wolfe Park are always in demand, Ms. Spanbauer said. Early last year, a colonial on Alpine Road with a four-car garage and a pool sold for $510,000. A three-bedroom in the Great Oak Farm subdivision near the park sold for $420,000 in April.

In Whitney Farms, where lots are generally under an acre, three- and four-bedroom colonials have recently sold in the low- to mid-$400,000s.

Property taxes are a little higher than in some surrounding towns. Using the current mil rate of $29.26, taxes on a property assessed at $400,000 would be about $11,700 in Monroe, $8,960 in Shelton. "People complain," Ms. Spanbauer said. "But the reasons our taxes are the way they are is because we have a lot of amenities and very little industry."

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