While new to the commission, the business at hand has been a hot topic around the county for the past six weeks – Alfonzo Lawson's request for a variance to the county's Land Use Ordinance to rebuild his store/nightclub on Old Highway 61 in Choctaw.
On Aug. 6 the Bolivar County Board of Supervisors heard Lawson's request for a variance and after a heated discussion voted by a 4-1 margin to by-pass the planning commission and grant Lawson's variance to continue rebuilding his business that was completely destroyed during an early morning fire on July 8.
On Aug. 8, by invitation from the board, members of the Choctaw community were allowed to voice their objections to the board's decision allowing Lawson to rebuild.
After their comments, the board decided to uphold their initial decision on the matter,
After that meeting a party comprised of multiple Choctaw residents filed a civil suit against the board of supervisor.
Pending legal action and by request from the board of supervisors, Linda F. Coleman, county attorney, sent a letter to Lawson requesting that he cease rebuilding.
Lawson, in turn, filed a civil suit against the board of supervisors.
At the opening of Thursday's meeting Dr. Bernice Ray, chairperson of the Planning Commission appointed by Supervisor Andrew Williams, addressed the audience on the procedures that the commission follows before granting variances to the Land Use Ordinance.
"The purpose of tonight's proceedings is to hear statements from the applicant, Mr. Alfonzo Lawson, to support the written application that he has submitted," said Ray. "After we have heard the comments from the applicant, this commission will determine by vote if this application will move forward in the process."
Ray said that Thursday's meeting was the first of three steps that must happen before a request is granted or denied.
"If this commission returns a majority yes vote at tonight's meeting, the applicant and the county Code Enforcer, Cynthia Blockett, will advertise the request in the newspaper.
"After 30 days has passed, this commission will meet again and host a public hearing on the matter," Ray Added. "At this public hearing, the applicant will again be free to address this commission as will any member of the public who wishes to do so."
"At the end of the public hearing there will be another vote by the commission which will determine its final decision," she said.
The commission's official recommendation will then be sent back to the board of supervisors for a final decision.
With his attorney, Aelicia Thomas, at his side, Lawson addressed the commission.
"I am asking this board for a variance because my business, as well as others nearby, was operating in the same location when the Land Ordinance was formed," said Lawson. "I was never notified that the property had been declared as a residential zone.
"In fact, I didn't even know that it was a residential zone until my business burned in July," he added.
Later in his address Lawson revealed the fact that the property in question did not actually belong to him.
"So who actually owns the property," asked Otis Hankins, vice chairperson of the planning commission and appointee of Supervisor Donny Whitten.
"The property actually belongs to Mr. Lawson's aunt, Patricia Patrick," said Thomas. "But that is not an issue in this case because Mr. Lawson has the power of attorney on the property."
"Do you have paperwork to show this," asked Hankins.
At the request of Lawson, Thomas provided the power of attorney paperwork that was then passed around to each member of the commission for inspection.
Attorney for the group of Choctaw residents who filed suit against the board of supervisors, Lee Gladden Jr., attempted to make a comment to the commission but was immediately turned away.
"You sir, are out of order," exclaimed Ray. "I told everyone in the audience before the meeting how this was going to transpire."
After hearing more comments from Lawson, the commission returned to chambers to discuss and vote.
While in chambers, emotions in the audience ran rampant.
Comments from audience members, including Gladden's mother, made to Lawson infuriated him and tempers flared.
Heated words bounced through the room until County Administrator Will Hooker stepped in to regain order.
The commission then returned from chambers with a vote.
"It is the decision of this commission that we move in favor of advancing to the next step of the process in Mr. Lawson request for a variance," said Ray. "The vote of the commission was unanimous."