Despite voting 4-3 to grant Jeff Miller’s Golden Age tattoo studio a variance, the body did not produce the fifth vote necessary to overturn a longstanding prohibited-use statute.
By Matt Skoufalos
Tattoo artist Jeff Miller withstood being twice bumped to the bottom of the Collingswood Zoning Board agenda.
Even when his variance application was continued after a two-month layover, Miller drew an overflow crowd to both meetings.
The stream of public comment, including that of several business owners operating in the downtown shopping district, was unanimously and enthusiastically in favor of his concept for Golden Age Tattoo and Gallery.
Miller even managed to convince four of the seven voting members of the board that his plan for the Haddon Avenue storefront formerly belonging to florist Michael Bruce was a solid one.
But he couldn’t secure the critical fifth vote needed to overturn the existing borough code and allow his tattoo parlor, which is an expressly prohibited use, to operate in the Collingswood business corridor.
To the soft-spoken Runnemede resident who has navigated the public process conscientiously and in good faith, the rejection represents “a roadblock; a simple speed bump in what is my eventual goal.
“I realize that the legal process is set up to prevent hasty decisions and irresponsible rulings,” Miller said. “I don’t just expect to be handed the keys to the city.”
For a number of his supporters, however, the decision seemed an indicator that the borough should revisit its prohibition on tattoo parlors or else risk losing a viable addition to the local business district.
Frustrating process, outcome
Collingswood resident Daniel Brill was among those who attended both Miller’s original zoning board hearing and the continuance Wednesday, and he said he was “very frustrated with the process,” especially as the board made a roomful of Miller’s supporters wait until the final moments of both meetings to speak.
“The fact that he was told at the outset of this meeting that he was top of the agenda and was moved to the end of the agenda was unacceptable,” Brill said. “Local business owners that were here to support [him]left.”
Brill, who has patronized Miller for tattoo and piercing work, said he was also disappointed that the board seemed to question whether Miller’s studio “fits with the character of…a town full of small business artisans.”
When the vote didn’t carry, Brill said the immediate reaction from the crowd was “disbelief and silence,” which “changed to frustration and anger” as people filed out of the room.
“There were no naysayers” who testified at the hearing, he said. “I’m still frustrated.”
Brill said he was also bothered that the body didn’t entertain discussion after the meeting or offer a “sum-up of next steps.” When Miller’s lawyer asked to hear more from opponents of the variance, he was told, “This is not a jury. You can’t ask us questions. We don’t have to say anything,” Brill said.
“Outside of the process, I think it’s kind of embarrassing for the town,” Brill said. “This town is predicated on art and progressive thinking. [Miller] wants to be part of the community. He has an established business that makes money today that he wants to pick up and bring into town.”
Tom Marchetty, owner of The Factory and one of a succession of Collingswood business owners who testified in support of Miller, was crestfallen at the result.
“I’m so sick to my stomach,” he said. “That building has been sitting vacant for eight months with no offers. It’s a unique space, and it has to have a unique business.
“I cannot believe they cast that down,” he said.
‘It’s time to change the ordinance’
Dig This owner Reed Orem, who also twice came out to support Miller, said he worried about the long-term implications of the vote for business in the borough.
“This is definitely going to hurt the image of our town as a place where you want to be,” Orem said.
“I think that public perception might start turning against us if we don’t revisit and update our ordinance codes.
“As a business owner, as a realtor, and as a property owner, I can see this negatively affecting us,” Orem said. “You can see the gist of how much more progressive Oaklyn is because they accepted the brew pub that wanted to be here first.”
Orem worried that passing up on Miller’s business could represent a lost opportunity for the borough, especially in a unique and hard-to-fill space.
“Are we questioning his business model and the success of it, or are we questioning the success of any business?” he said. “If it’s always going to be no because of the fear of the unknown, then there’s no point of requesting a variance.
“I care about the guy who’s in front of me, who’s willing to put in the effort,” Orem said. “I was here for his first presentation and I liked it. It was important that it be the right person, and it is for that specific location.”
At the same time, Orem said he did not envy the board its decision. He opined that the body felt pressure to maintain the strength of the existing statute, which regards tattoo parlors as a prohibited use in the downtown business district. Despite the overwhelmingly positive public sentiment and the strength of Miller’s business model, the weight of the current code may have been too much to overcome.
“It was a tough vote no matter what,” Orem said. “I think the board clearly stated that although they weren’t ready to grant the variance, that it’s time to change the ordinance. One of the board members said it directly, that we should speak to the commissioners about changing it. I hope that’s the direction Jeff and his attorney take.
“It was amended in 2002, and a lot has changed in 13 years,” he said. “This was a good applicant and the public sentiment was there.”
Although Collingswood Mayor James Maley “certainly has shown extreme willingness to listen,” Orem said, he worried whether after reconsidering their stance on craft breweries, the commissioners might face a challenge overturning another longstanding prohibited use so soon.
“The difficulty here is how much change and at what clip is the population going to be comfortable with,” Orem said, “but that’s the job of the mayor and commissioners.
“The amount of people who showed endorsement [of Miller’s business]and the lack of dissent for this idea [could be]a way to gauge public opinion on maybe we should change this ordinance.
“Maybe we don’t need to put this on the [zoning]board,” Orem said. “They have to think about worst-case scenarios. They are volunteers.”
Miller seemed to share Orem’s outlook that the board was doing its duty to the standard required by its service to the community.
“I felt like the whole board, even the ones who opposed it, were in support that what I had was lawful, but they could not reconcile their support of my business plan with their desire to follow the prohibitions written into the central business district,” he said.
“I may have had seven supporters up there,” Miller said. “I don’t know, because at least three of them felt it was not their place to contradict the laws that had been written many years ago.”
Miller said next he’ll weigh his options, whether appealing the ruling or finding another community in which to situate his shop, but that he hasn’t given up on trying to get into in Collingswood.
Miller also thanked his supporters, some of whom he’d never met before, who “spent a lot of hours in a hot room on two different nights just to have the chance to speak for five minutes.
“I think the business owners as well as the community were all represented well in the audience, and unfortunately, the voice that they gave was not weighed strongly enough, in my opinion,” he said.
“It was more than I could have ever hoped for, and honestly, without that, I don’t even know that I would have gotten as far as I did.”
In a downtown business district that is working to find innovative complements to its restaurant scene, Miller still believes his model represents a destination business opportunity that can’t be superseded by competitive pricing. He encouraged his supporters to connect with local leaders to help drive the same kind of ordinance changes that led to the borough reconsidering its position on craft beer.
“If you want to see this change, get involved,” Miller said. “It’s easy enough to complain about it or look at a distance and say, ‘That’s not right.’ In a small town like this, you have the power to let your voice be known.
“All the members of the board seemed like they were willing to embrace what I had to offer,” he said. “Their issue stood with what the laws state, not with what I had to do, and there’s a process by which the law changes.”