Robbinsville Township officials surprised Janet Van Nest by giving her a Key to the Township June 11, 2016 during Community Day. Her family was in on the surprise. Pictured are township business administrator Joy Tozzi, Megan Van Nest, Kenn Van Nest, Janet Van Nest, Ken Van Nest, Brianna Van Nest, Kristin Romanok, Samantha Romanok, Clayton Romanok and Craig Romanok.
When Janet Van Nest and her husband Ken moved to what was then-Washington Township in 1968, they arrived in a town that was mostly farmland with about 3,000 residents scattered throughout. Neighbors were close, personally if not geographically, in the 20 square miles of open space. When Van Nest’s son graduated eighth grade, he did so with 28 classmates.

But, 35 years ago, there were plans for change. A solid waste landfill was to be developed near Sharon Elementary School, and Van Nest and colleagues saw immediate risks. The municipality had shallow water and personal wells beneath it that the landfill could possibly reach. The odorous site could attract gulls, which could become a safety hazard for the Trenton-Robbinsville Airport. Methane gas would be emitted closely to the school.

Van Nest started a group against the landfill site, and was named president. It was the first of many causes Van Nest would lead, one of the reasons Robbinsville Township honored her with a Key to the Township last month.

To fight the landfill, Van Nest knew awareness was key. Van Nest and her group members would call people they knew, and ask them to call the people they knew, and so on.

“If you didn’t have a close relationship with someone, you still knew just about who everyone was, because it was easy to network,” Van Nest said. “It was networking — before we even knew that word back then.”

What Van Nest’s group created was practically a parade, just in time for a meeting regarding the landfill. A two-mile motorcade and police escort guided the hordes of people — loaded with prepared signs and even refreshments — two miles to the meeting at Mercer County Community College. It was weird to even think of that many people coming together in the little town, Van Nest said, but they did. A county freeholder at the meeting asked aloud if there was anyone left in Washington Township.

There is no Washington Township in Mercer County anymore—the township was renamed Robbinsville Township at the beginning of 2008, one of many changes for the municipality in the early 21st century. The population has grown to about 15,000 residents. Along with the development of the housing-based Town Center came more business and attraction to town. But Van Nest remains a constant in the township, having as much influence—if not more—as she had when helped stopped that landfill site in the 1980s.

Van Nest was at the Robbinsville Community Park on Saturday, June 11 when she was asked to come over near the bandstand. Not much was happening when she took the stage, but it quickly turned into a ceremony. Township officials surprised Van Nest with a key to the township for her 30-plus years of service to Robbinsville. Van Nest the third person to have received such an honor, by her own count.

She was accompanied by her husband Ken, son Kenn, daughter Kristin Romanok, their spouses Megan Van Nest and Craig Romanok and her grandchildren Brianna Van Nest and Samantha and Craig Romanok, who all managed to keep the surprise away from her. Township officials, including recreation director Joe Barker and township business administrator Joy Tozzi, joined her onstage for the presentation of the key. Though Van Nest wasn’t given a particular reason as for why she was being given a key, she believes it has to do with her environmental involvement in the township, which began with the landfill site and only picked up steam from there.

Shortly after her group’s win to block the landfill, the township appointed Van Nest to its environmental commission. Back then, environmental issues were just coming to the forefront of concern, Van Nest said. One of the first issues the board sat on in her tenure was the discussion of setting a recycling center.

A few years later, a sludge farm was proposed, once again near Sharon School. Van Nest again mobilized the community, and defeated the project.

“Keeping our hamlet clean and green was a priority for Janet, and she became a formidable force in achieving that goal,” said Rosemary James, a friend of Van Nest’s and a former Robbinsville resident. “She is a wonderful combination of activist and scientist, self-taught in many ways, often giving up sleeping through the night to stay up and research pertinent topics…She developed a thick skin right along with her research, speaking and writing skills, laughing off the ‘hysterical housewife’ label someone gave her and proving that she was so much more.”

Van Nest became involved in almost every facet of the township. She served on the board of public health and is currently on the planning board, where she has served as chair multiple times and was once part of a subcommittee that set the plan for Town Center. As president of the historical society, she planned out the events and celebration of the township’s 150th anniversary in 2009.

She started the annual Tomm May 5K run over 20 years ago when May, a young environmentalist and her next-door neighbor, was killed in car accident. The proceeds of the charity run go towards the maintenance and improvement of a trail named after May, itself an effort led by Van Nest.

For as much as she has accomplished, there’s even more Van Nest has wanted to do that didn’t come to fruition. She was the frontrunner to lead the rebuilding project of the township’s historic schoolhouse, planning commission and board of education member Craig Heilman said. Van Nest is well-versed in the history of the schoolhouse—as she is with most town history, Heilman said, which makes the planning commission’s job that much easier.

“She’s just a hub of information on Robbinsville,” Heilman said. “She knows everything since this town was basically farm country, and it’s amazing, these stories she tells.”

Heilman and Van Nest initially knew each other through church, but have served together on the planning commission since Heilman was appointed to a seat in 2012. Van Nest took him “under her wing,” he said, often fielding his whispered questions about the board’s history before he addressed everyone else.

“She remembers everything that went through there and every person who’s been there,” Heilman said. “When she talks, everybody listens. She’s very influential. She will stand up for citizens and the town.”

Heilman also praised the equal involvement of her family, noting how Ken Van Nest volunteers for the local Meals on Wheels program. Heilman was happy to see that what really made Van Nest excited at her surprise key ceremony was that her family was there with her.

“She puts the people first in everything she does,” Heilman said. “It’s remarkable what she’s done with her family.”

Van Nest believes it’s her experience alone that has kept her influential in the town over time.

“I’ve just been fortunate to have been reappointed but perhaps that’s because I’ve been here so long,” Van Nest said. “You mostly learn by doing it.”

It’s mutually beneficial, as Van Nest finds herself staying sharp into her later years. For as well as retirement could work out for her—she loves spending time with her grandchildren and her favorite place to be is at the shore, just a drive away—her small town’s history keeps taking too many interesting turns for her to not be involved.

“Robbinsville is just a great place to live,” Van Nest said. “It just is. Because it’s only been developed in recent years, it’s like it’s new.”

In past years, Van Nest has become as interested in her family’s history as she is in the community’s. She finds it interesting that, as people get older, they become more curious about their genealogy. She’s no exception.

“I used to always have aunts, uncles here for Sunday dinner, and they would talk about our family,” Van Nest said. “Now I spend all my time researching that information. I didn’t appreciate it then.”

Through her research, Van Nest found yet another useful bit of community history. Her grandfather was very involved in Hopewell politics, serving as a sheriff on his town council years ago.

“Sometimes it’s in the genes, you know?” Van Nest said.