| By Billy Davis
Long-time restaurateur Cheryl Bishop is closer to opening a new eatery after the county land development commission agreed that the facility she is renting is "grandfathered," which allows her to avoid a public hearing and application process.
Bishop was not on the agenda for the commission’s Monday evening meeting in Batesville, so she waited until the commission had finished its planned business before she described her plans to re-open Paw Paw’s Restaurant.
The restaurant is located west of Batesville next to North Delta School.
Accompanying Bishop to the meeting was restaurant owner David Bailey, who spoke on behalf of Bishop and her plans to re-open the doors.
"Cheryl has been paying me a monthly fee, and I’m just trying to help her get going," Bailey told the commission.
Bailey said he operated the restaurant for about seven months until the pain of standing all day on a concrete floor forced him to quit. Even though he closed the doors, he maintained the utilities to the restaurant for more than two years while he searched for a suitable renter for the restaurant.
Bailey’s comment about paying the utilities caught the attention of commission consultant Bob Barber. The use of utility bills is sometimes used to show that a business has not been abandoned, Barber told the commission.
The county’s land-use ordinance stipulates that a non-used business is considered abandoned, which would revert the property from commercial back to agricultural, if it has not been operated for 120 days.
Barber and commission chairman Danny Walker described the dilemma: is the restaurant considered abandoned since it has not been in operation for more than two years, or is it still in operation since Bailey has been paying the utilities and searching for a renter?
"If (Bailey) had abandoned it, then he wouldn’t be keeping up on paying the water and sewer," responded commission member Tim Holliday.
After about 20 minutes of discussion, commission member Donna Traywick made a motion to allow the restaurant to re-open via a grandfather clause on the provision that Bailey provide utility bills to back his claim.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the motion.
Panola County permit clerk Diane Stewart told The Panolian Tuesday that Bailey delivered the required utility bills to her office Tuesday morning.
The land commission’s vote to allow the grandfather clause came after its members learned from Bailey that Panola County Administrator David Chandler had given him permission to skip the public application process so he could quickly open the doors to his restaurant.
Stewart showed the land commission a letter sent to her from Bailey, which he said Chandler helped him write to speed up the restaurant’s opening date.
The letter states, in part, that Bailey received permission from the two boards "to go ahead and open up."
"I do understand that I will appear before the Panola County Land Commission at a later date," the letter also states. "I also understand the problem is my land is classified as agricultural but needs to be commercial."
Barber acknowledged to the commission that Chandler had communicated with him about Bailey’s time-sensitive situation. During that conversation, he told Chandler about a "hold harmless" clause that is sometimes used to prevent liability issues.
The final sentence of the letter hints at that tactic, stating that "this building has always been a commercial building but I do not hold Panola County responsible for this oversight."
By opening its doors, Bailey’s restaurant would have been allowed to sidestep the procedures required of all other businesses in the county, land commission members agreed.
"Even though nobody is likely opposed to your restaurant, the public is entitled to a public hearing before you open," Walker told Bailey.
"Everybody’s looking forward to Ms. Cheryl opening, but you must follow the process," commission member Danny Jones also told Bailey.
The commission then heard from Bailey about the utilities, and discussion turned toward the possibility of a grandfather clause.