When the Hopewell Township Committee convened its annual reorganization meeting on Jan. 2, the occasion was palpably the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Michael Ruger, elected to the committee for the first time in November, was sworn into office. Kevin Kuchinski, re-elected alongside Ruger, was sworn in for a second time. Afterward, Kuchinski and committee member Julie Blake were named mayor and deputy mayor for a second year running.
The meeting was also notable because of someone who was not sworn into office that day. For the first time in more than 16 years, there was a township committee in Hopewell and Vanessa Sandom was not on it.
Sandom decided last summer not to seek re-election, having served five full terms and part of another. She ends her time in office having served more years as mayor — seven — than anyone in township history.
Speaking to the Express a few weeks after reorganization, she said it was the right time to step away from elected office because she feels the township is in good hands with the current committee.
“I’ve always felt that having elected officials stay on a long time — while it’s good because you have institutional knowledge — you also want representatives who have fresh voices,” she said. “We have dedicated individuals who have appeared over the last year and a half or so. It’s wonderful to see that.”
Which is not to say that Sandom has walked away—she has after all been appointed an alternate to the planning board.
So she’ll still be involved. But her time as an elected official appears to be over.
Sandom was born in the U.S., but when she was three years old her family moved to Europe, where she mostly lived until she returned to study philosophy at the University of Connecticut. Her father, Zane, was an executive with American Express. Mother Else was a native of Denmark, and the family lived both there and in Spain for a time, but spent the majority of time in France, Italy and England. She did get to spend a year and a half living in San Francisco in her pre-high school years, around the time the hippie movement was gaining steam in the city’s Haight-Ashbury District.
Sandom attended UConn intending to become a lawyer. “I wanted to be Perry Mason, actually,” she said with a laugh. “It was one of the few American TV shows we got overseas.”
She spent some time working in Hartford in a prosecutors office. The experience convinced her that trial law was not for her. She went to Yale and earned what they called at the time a Public and Private masters degree — today it’s Yale’s MBA program.
She went on to work in management for GE, Johnson and Johnson and Travelers Insurance. Her husband Carl Seiden is a self-employed business consultant. They have two sons, both in their 20’s: Alex, who works as a coder in San Francisco, and Ben, who works in the communications department for the British embassy in Washington.
In the mid-90’s, Sandom quit work to stay home with her young kids. Within a few years she began to get involved in local politics. The family lived on Harbourton Ridge Drive, where they still live today, and which she describes as a very active street at the time in terms of politics. “We started this group, the Harbourton Ridge Babes,” she said. “It’s not PC now, but it was how we described ourselves then.”
She remembers several issues spurring her decision to get involved in town politics. One was that the schools were talking about redistricting Bear Tavern Elementary School. Another was that the township was talking about bringing sewers up Route 31. And the sale of land on Scotch Road to Merrill Lynch was beginning to be discussed. “That’s really what brought us all out to a lot of meetings,” she said.
Sandom has a brother, J. Sandom of New Jersey, and a sister, Michel Pontarelli of Iowa.
Most people who have the privilege of serving on the Hopewell Township Committee start their terms in January, having won election to the body the previous November. But every once in a while someone steps down from the committee in the middle of their term with a replacement named to take their place—whenever in the year that might be.
So began Vanessa Sandom’s career as a lawmaker. When committee member Kathy Bird resigned from the committee for personal reasons, someone needed to step in. Sandom had campaigned for a number of Democratic committee candidates in the late ’90s, so the committee asked her if she would fill Bird’s seat.
She recalls that the committee decided that she would be their new appointee on Sept. 10 of that year, and she was sworn in that October — October 2001.
Which is to say, the day after the committee decided to make her their newest member, the nation suffered the unforgettable terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A month later, as she was taking office, the country was reeling from a fresh attack. Someone was mailing envelopes of deadly anthrax to people around the country, with at least some of the envelopes being sent from right down the road, the post office in West Trenton. “I had no way of expecting to be dealing with those kinds of issues from the start,” she said.
She ran for office for the first time in 2002 and was elected to her first full term, running and winning again in 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2014. She remembers the early days of her tenure being a time of change both at the federal and the local level.
“They had begun the process of looking at the township master plan in late ’90s,” she said. “We were trying to define who we were and who we wanted to be. I think of those early years as being just enormously important in defining who the country was and also at the local level deciding what Hopewell Township would be.”
She says those days remind her of today when it came to the debates over how the township should be zoned and how it should develop. Reed and Diverty Roads, for example, now a hot subject of discussion for new residential development, were under consideration for residential development back in 2003.
“Fundamentally, we had different visions for the township,” she said. “When we were rezoning properties there were a lot of landowners who felt the value of their properties were being reduced as a result of the downzoning. There were a lot of outside pressures trying to determine what the township should be and a lot of pushback by the public, and rightly so.”
Sandom says the most difficult meeting she can remember is probably the one held after the township, concerned with the health of Hopewell’s many septic systems, proposed that the municipality take over management of the septic systems. She says a thousand angry people filed into the high school auditorium, most to speak up against the plan.
“It was a very long meeting and it failed because the public disagreed,” she said. “Even though we thought we had a great idea. You try different approaches. We had a task force for Pennytown and that task force met for over a year, they had public meetings to talk about what we thought would make sense for that area. And the public disagreed, ultimately.”
Development of Pennytown never happened, but for some residents the committee’s recent decision to swap land on Scotch Road with developer CF Hopewell — a move that should lead to the township beginning to fulfill the affordable housing requirements it agreed to last year—is a sign that a residential development boom is imminent and the township is doomed to lose its identity and pastoral character.
Sandom says the east and west sides of Scotch Road have been a focus of the committee since the mid-1990’s. The land abuts Ewing Township, it has access to the Interstate 95 (now 295) interchange, and it has sewers in the ground. Those are all factors that make it desirable for development.
“As far back as I can remember, it has been understood that there would be development on both sides,” she said.
Scotch Road and environs are a hot topic, but as she leaves office Sandom sees other issues in Hopewell Township that ought to be cause for concern. One is municipal staffing.
“What I worry about most is that more than 80 percent of our employees can retire over the next two years,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they will, but they can. It’s not just us, every municipality is in that boat. Competition for talent in our staff is going to become fierce.”
Financial issues at the state and municipal level are just going to get worse, she says, and that’s going to compound the problem.
“It’s going to be really hard to attract and then pay good talent,” she said. “We’re fortunate to have some really good people, but the question becomes how do we attract critically important people to be the leaders of our town? The committee in our form of government handles legislative duties, but the day-to-day operations are in the hands of the administrator and the staff. Each one of these positions is important to the smooth, invisible function of the township, which is what most people want.”
She sees the pending departure of Bristol-Myers Squibb as another major hurdle for the township. “Once BMS figures out what makes the most sense for it, in terms of its own future, the township is going to have to work closely with them to do what it needs to do,” she said.
She doesn’t think it’s realistic to expect that a single business will replace BMS and the huge contribution it makes to Hopewell’s tax base as the largest business in town. “There will be a lot of difficult questions the township is going to have to answer,” she said. “What is it ready to do to help BMS find a new tenant or owner? It may not be one company, and they may want to do a combination of residential and retail and commercial. What does that mean for the town?”
One thing is for sure, she says: the land cannot sit vacant. “We learned that with Berwyn Properties on both the east and west sides of Carter Road,” she said. When the land sat, the value of the property depressed, and we lost a lot of rateables.”
Sandom will still be visible on the Hopewell scene. She worked tirelessly on behalf of the Hopewell Valley Arts Council promoting its famous fundraiser, the “Stampede” of painted oxen that appeared throughout Hopewell Valley, and she is going to continue to volunteer for the organization.
She said one new initiative of the Arts Council is “Out of the Ashes,” a community project to upcycle blighted ash trees destroyed by the emerald ash borer beetle into art.
Hopewell Township will be 320 years old in 2020, and Sandom will be involved in a heritage family project related to that. There are quite a few families in the Valley that can trace their roots back to the 1700’s, and the project will involve telling the stories of these families on video.
Sandom and her family are avid travelers and she doesn’t see that changing any time soon. They visit her family in Denmark, but also explore other parts of the world as much as they can. She attributes this wanderlust to her having grown up overseas.
It’s not all for leisure. She and her family also made many trips as members of Global Volunteers, an nonprofit organization that places people in countries all over the world where they can lend a hand in important community development projects.
“It was important to me that my children knew there was a life beyond Hopewell Valley,” she said. “It was a good way to teach them about different cultures beyond what they might learn by being a tourist.”
She says her sons are better citizens of the United States now because they’ve experienced the different ways people live. “We’re so fortunate to live the way we do,” she said. “Sometimes you have to get out of a place to learn to love a place as much as you can.”