Collingswood Zoning Board members unanimously denied a borough man's use variance application, aimed at using his detached garage as a gathering place for group meditation.
Applicant Stephen Tumolo, who owns the said property at the unit block of Coulter Ave., holds a master's degree in theology and currently teaches religion at Camden Catholic High School.
Tumolo has lived at the 2-and-a-half story Coulter Ave. property for the past two years, which features a detached garage.
Wednesday night, Tumolo testified that 10 months after purchasing his home, he began making improvements to the garage space without building permits.
"A few times each month, I gather (in the garage) with friends to host a silent meditation and support group," said Tumolo, adding that meetings originated inside his home, until a new member's allergies led the group away from the home—and Tumolo's cat—and into the garage space.
"So I began making improvements to the garage. A professional carpenter finished these improvements; I was under the impression building permits were not needed," said Tumolo.
After receiving a letter from the borough this past September—stemming from other Coulter Avenue resident complaints, regarding their neighbor's guests—Tumolo applied for a use variance.
Before the letter, Tumolo said he'd also accepted houseguests from whom he collected rent money.
"About seven people have been guests in my house, from as little as three weeks, to up to one year," he said. "Some of those guests could be described as being quirky (and generated neighbor concerns). I'd already asked one of those quirky people to move out, and, by September (2011), I was living alone."
During the meeting—which was attended by 22 people, six of them members of Tumolo's meditation group—sworn testimonies were given by supporters and skeptics.
"I live (on Coulter Avenue) and work from home," said neighbor David I. Kobert, who testified as having seen one of Tumolo's houseguests urinating outside, on his lawn. "I don't want to have to think about the people who come into my neighborhood as being potentially dangerous.
"Working from home, I see a lot of what goes on in my neighborhood. I look out my front window and notice the world; my world happens to be Coulter Ave.," said Kobert. "We live on a one-way street (with inadequate parking). My concerns are traffic, the inconstancy of people who visit (Tumolo), and fear."
Neighbors also testified that their street, which borders Mark Newbie Elementary School, is not an appropriate place to host houseguests such as Tumolo's.
One neighbor raised questions about one of Tumolo's side jobs, working with the incarcerated. Tumolo testified that no convicts or parolees have been guests in his home.
Thomas J. Jenkins Jr., of Gloucester City, spoke as a member of the meditation group.
"I work at Yogawood in Collingswood, met (Tumolo through a friend), and he's someone who's very honest and has an open heart, who I could trust," he said. "Since 1993, I've been to therapy and I still couldn't heal. Within three months of sitting in (Tumolo's garage), I can tell you I'm healed."
Tumolo said up to eight friends gather anywhere from two to three times each month, for up to three-and-a-half hours, for meditation, a potluck supper and mutual support conversations.
Three hours into Wednesday's meeting, Collingswood Zoning and Code Enforcement Official Mary Ellen Ries provided the final pieces of testimony before board members voted on the application.
"Ordinance maintains, that on any parcel of land—for living or sleeping purposes—a accessory structure (including a detached garage) may not be used," said Ries.
After deliberating, zoning board members agreed Tumolo's application did not fit within the statute of zoning ordinance.
His use variance application was unanimously denied by the board.