Commissioners testify in liquor license denial hearing

Published 3:00 am Tuesday, March 22, 2016

All six Pike County commissioners testified Monday during a hearing to determine if their denial of a liquor license was arbitrary and capricious.

Chris Dickens filed suit against the commission over the fall 2015 denial of his request for both a brew-pub and an on-site restaurant beer and liquor license for a restaurant and entertainment venue he seeks to open on Highway 87 in the Springhill Community.

“We absolutely made our case today,” said Joel Williams, attorney for Dickens. “For the commission to deny the request, there has to be a substantive reason … not just a ‘concern’ or a ‘belief.’

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“While I respect their opinions, that doesn’t rise to the level of substantive.”

The county commission denied Dickens’ request in September 2015, voting 5-1 against issuing the license. Dickens, who is the culinary arts instructor at Charles Henderson High School and also operated the now-closed Sweet Rack Ribs in downtown Troy, said at the time he planned to create an establishment with a brew-pub atmosphere.

Monday’s hearing before Pike County Circuit Judge Jeff Kelly was part of Dickens’ appeal of that ruling.

“Their decision was arbitrary and capricious,” Williams said during his closing statement. “Even though (the commissioners) have the authority (to deny the license) they cannot do that without a substantive reason. They didn’t provide that today.”

Instead, Williams said, the commissioners testified about community opposition to the business venture and safety concerns about the roadway and location.

“The only other thing we heard today’s is ‘the road’s not safe,’” Williams said. “But someone’s concern does not arise to the level of substantive … if the road is unsafe, they cannot just deem it unsafe. They have to prove it unsafe… At some point the condition of the road speaks for itself, unless they can offer substantive or empirical data to support that claim.”

Williams said the suit doesn’t challenge the commission’s right to deny the license, just the outcome. “We’re not saying the process was flawed,” he said. “We’re saying the end result was.”

Allen Jones, the attorney for the commission, declined to comment after the hearing. However, during closing statements he said the question posed in the hearing isn’t whether or not the commission was within its rights to deny the license request.

“It’s one thing to be unhappy and unsatisfied and disagree vehemently with the vote,” he said. “But at issue here today is not to second guess the Pike County Commission … but did they follow the process? Did they do due diligence?”

Allen went on to say the testimony from the commissioners and from Dickens proved the decision was not reached arbitrarily or capriciously

“The process that was initiated by Mr. Dickens by asking the commissioners to meet with him, all the way through the final vote, was anything but arbitrary and capricious,” Jones said.

According to testimony, Dickens met with several members of the commission at the proposed restaurant location prior to submitting the formal applications. Dickens said his vision for the business at 7407 Highway 87 is three-fold: a private restaurant and brew-pub, a general store and a concert venue.

Commissioners Jimmy Barron, Robin Sullivan, Joey Jackson and R.A. Goodson all testified that they met informally with Dickens at the proposed location.

“I went down to Springhill to visit with Mr. Dickens,” Jackson testified. “I listened to what he had to say, and I told him, ‘sir, I’m going to be against this.’ He knows the reason. I told him why, and that I had to excuse myself.”

When pressed, Jackson said he opposed the license because of his personal moral objection to alcohol consumption, safety issues and the “the people of the community are not in favor of it.”

He said he did not consult engineering or traffic studies regarding potential traffic concerns. “We talked it over with the road people and I talked to the county engineer, Russell Oliver …

“I did not see the need to have a traffic study done because I have enough common sense to see what’s going on.”

Homer Wright was chairman of the commission at the time of Dickens’ license request. He testified that he had received “several calls from the area. They weren’t pleased with having that in their community.”

He also said he had safety concerns about the location. “My conclusion is that it was a hazard. You’ve got 87, 167 connecting just below (that location) and I’m more concerned that when you drink a few beers your visions I not good,” Wright said. “If we approved that and someone pullout out and hit somebody, I’d have to live with that.”

Goodson, whose district includes the Springhill location, testified that his decision was based on safety concerns and community feedback. “The people in that location, they don’t want the brewery there,” Goodson said, waving at the nearly two dozen Springhill residents in the courtroom. “Plus these right here, I probably had 25 people call me …

“Safety is my first concern, and I’m going to support the people in that community. I represent those people.”

Goodson said he, like others, had concerns over Dickens’ proposals that included provided bus transportation for customers unable or unwilling to drive and over Dickens’ desire to make the restaurant a private club, which could open it Sunday alcohol sales. “I told him I ain’t never voted for people to sell alcohol on Sunday and I ain’t fixing to start.”

He also asked Dickens to gather letters of testimony and support from business leaders, government leaders and representatives of Troy University.

“I weighed all the information that was brought to me to make my decision,” Goodson said.

Sullivan said while he at first liked the idea of the restaurant and entertainment venue, but he became concerned about safety issues. “One of my main concerns is the safety issue, as per our sheriff stated to us,” he said, adding. “The whole community has decided that this is a thing they do not want to have in their neighborhood.”

Sullivan said reaching the decision to vote against the license was a lengthy process for him. “I still think about it,” he testified. “I don’t want to see somebody who wants to open a business run out of town … It’s not like I just walked in and said ‘no I’m not going to do this’ or ‘yes, I’ll do this.’ It was a long process.”

Charlie Harris also did not attend the informal meeting at the Springhill venue, but he said his experience as a bus driver helped inform his decision. “I travel that road,” he said. “It’s unsafe.”

He cited the traffic, the location and concerns about safety based on Dickens’ comments regarding having on-site security and providing bus transportation for patrons. “He said he was getting law enforcement from Elba to help with security … that’s a bad thing,” Harris said.

Property owner Charles Corley and Dickens were the final two witnesses to testify on Monday.

Dickens explained his vision for the business and said he invited the commissioners to meet with him informally in an effort to share that vision. “After the first meeting, we actually wanted to make sure we had the business support, so we invited folks in from chamber and economic development,” Dickens said. “That’s where we went wrong. We should’ve invited the community in first to explain the project to them.”

Dickens said during his first appearance and the Pike County Commission meeting, he presented the formal application and outlined the vision for the venue. It was at that meeting that he first heard concerned raised about the roadway being unsafe. “We never discussed highway safety or concerns over an unsafe road when we had the private meeting,” he said.

After that same meeting, Dickens said he was asked to secure additional written support for the project. “I think it took a lot of extra time and I don’t think most people who apply fall under the same requirements,” he said. “… Do I feel like it was done maliciously? Yes, in my heart of hearts I do.”

Jones asked Dickens how he could testify both that the decision was capricious and arbitrary, citing testimony from the commissioners and Dickens that he had met with officials three times – once informally and twice in formal public meetings to present his case.

‘I’m trying to wrap my mind around what is the issue before the court,” Jones said. “You’re alleging that the decision was capricious and arbitrary, but you also say the county commissioners put you through too much work … how can you have it both ways?”

Kelly has taken the case under advisement and will issue a ruling on it.