Land board denies request for lounge

Published 2:44 pm Wednesday, November 16, 2022

By unanimous vote the Panola County Land Development Commission rejected the application for a special exception filed by a Como convenience store owner who wants to open a hookah and beer lounge.

Mohammed Abdullah, owner of Como 51 Express, a 24-hour convenience store located south of Como town limits and north of the Tate County line, made his case before the commissioners at the Batesville Courthouse at a Monday evening meeting.

Abdullah told the board he wanted to open the smoking lounge for customers ages 23-35 primarily, but accepting anyone over 18. He said crowds of Panola County residents at his other similar businesses in Tunica and DeSoto Counties convinced him there is enough local business to open a lounge adjacent to the store, but with a separate entrance.

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The commissioners gave Abdullah ample time to explain his business plan and introduce a Como police officer that will be his partner. The officer said he would personally take special interest to keep drugs and hard liquor out of the lounge, if approved. He stressed to the board that hookah pipes use mild tobacco and are accented with fruit flavors and sometimes garnished with pieces of fresh fruit.

People frequent hookah lounges for the ambience and often gather with friends to share pipes with multiple hoses allowing for shared smoking while maintaining safety standards.

Abdullah has already obtained permits to serve beer and light wine at the proposed site, but needs approval from the county to open. Commissioners questioned him about parking, security, hours of operation, and a number of other issues before closing the public discussion part of the hearing and talking as a board.

Several times they asked board attorney Ryan Revere to remind them of the official reasons they could deny the permit, which includes language that addresses public safety and welfare of the general public among other standards.

Abdullah told the board he was willing to lease land beside the existing store for parking if needed, and offered to let the board set the hours of operation if they would agree to a six-month exception that would allow for a probationary period of sorts before issuing him a regular approval.

The matter of law enforcement was also part of the discussion, specifically that the Town of Como would have no jurisdiction, and any policing of the proposed lounge would fall to the Sheriff’s Office, already stretched thin in regular patrols.

Sheriff Shane Phelps was not at the hearing.

When the matter of bars seeking to open in the county has come before the Land Commission in past years, Phelps has maintained the same position – namely that his deputies would enforce the law the same whether bars are allowed to open or not, but that any additional place to gather and consume alcohol would certainly add more responsibility to law enforcement as a whole.

There are currently no bars in Panola County law enforcement jurisdiction, and all bars that operate now are inside a city or town limits.

Questioned after the meeting, Abdullah said he will decide this week whether to file an appeal of the decision. He has 10 days to make a written request with the Land Development Office to be placed on the agenda for a regular Board of Supervisors meeting.

The supervisors would review the land board’s decision and likely ask Abdullah to appear before them to answer questions. By a majority vote the supervisors can confirm or overturn the denial, and may also place any number of restrictions on the business.

If an appeal is filed, the supervisors would likely hear the matter at the second meeting of December at the Batesville Courthouse.