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City of Madison: Lawton vs. Citizens “Booty Warz” battle continues

Rick Patrick: Greene Publishing, Inc.

On Thursday, Aug. 3, before a standing room only audience, the City of Madison's Planning and Zoning/Board of Adjustment held a special meeting to vote on whether or not to grant a special exception to First Class Wireless, LLC d/b/a Jelani's Party and Event Center (JPEC), owned by David Lawton. The special exception was for a bar/tavern lounge to be operated at 317 SW Pinckney St., in Madison.  JPEC is an existing business that provides party and event rental space for a variety of events. The meeting of Aug. 3 was a “quasi judicial” hearing by the Board of Adjustment. In a quasi judicial hearing, the Board listens to testimony and reviews the evidence, and then makes a decision based solely on the evidence and testimony presented. The Board would listen to testimony from Lawton and anyone wishing to support the request and listen to testimony from those opposed to Lawton's request. Both sides would have the opportunity for cross-examination. All testimony was under oath. The Board was instructed by City Attorney Clay Schnitker that their decision, “is not based on what the majority of the people want, but rather what you think is right based only on the evidence presented.” In considering Lawton's request, several criteria must be met. Some of these criteria, such as ingress and egress to the property, location of utilities, etc. were not at issue, since JPEC is located in an existing building. There were other criteria, however, which would prove to be more problematic for Lawton. Among those were considerations relating to general compatibility with adjacent properties and other property in the district including, but not limited to, whether:

Changed or changing conditions find the proposed use to be advantageous to the community and the neighborhood.

The proposed use will adversely influence living conditions in the neighborhood.

The proposed use will adversely affect property values in the adjacent areas.

The proposed use will be deterrent to the improvement or development of adjacent property in accord with existing regulations.

The proposed use is out of scales with the needs of the neighborhood or the community.

Recently, an event was scheduled to take place at JPEC called “Booty Warz.” Lawton had originally planned to serve alcohol at the event in exchange for a “donation” per drink. Lawton was informed this was against existing codes, which prompted Lawton to not serve alcohol during the “Booty Warz” event. Lawton applied for the special exception with the hope to be able to serve beer and wine at future events similar to his “Booty Warz” event. Lawton has planned a “Lingerie and Pajama” party and the showing of the Connor McGregor vs Floyd Mayweather boxing match, scheduled to take place later in the month. Lawton stated that he also wished to serve beer and wine during Monday Night Football Games at JPEC in the fall. It was for this purpose that Lawton was seeking the exception.

In presenting his opening statements, Lawton told the Board that [JPEC] was already a fully functional event center. This was something Lawton reiterated several times throughout the meeting. “We are not asking to run a full-fledged bar or tavern at [our] event center. That is not our intent, that is not our purpose,” said Lawton. “If someone wants to have an adult event [such as] a birthday party or reception, or if we have Monday Night Football and guys want to have a beer, things of that nature, we want to be able to appropriately serve beer and wine in those cases.” Lawton stated that he wanted to open a place in downtown where patrons could enjoy “adult after-hours entertainment in a safe, drug-free facility.” “The people of Madison need something to do outside the typical norm,” said Lawton. “I do find this to be very advantageous to the neighborhood... The late teenage crowd, the 18, 19, or 20, the only thing they get to do here is plan a party, over at the Southside Rec. Center or at Divine Events. I understand there's a lot of violence at those events. Let me be clear to you, as a young African-American male, if you don't create stuff for these young people to do, you are going to continue to have that problem in this community... Something that promotes non-violence, something that's structured. I am trying my hardest to create such a place... Whether we have a beer and wine license or not, we are not going anywhere. We are going to be here.”

When asked if anyone wished to speak in support of Lawton's exception request, no one came forward.

Former Madison County Clerk of Courts Tim Sanders was the first person to speak in opposition of Lawton's exception request. Sanders addressed several of the criteria that must be met in order to approve the exception request. One was whether the “proposed use [would] be advantageous to the community and the neighborhood.” Sanders contended the proposed land use would not be advantageous to the community or the neighborhood. While making his case, Sanders revealed an image of a flyer Lawton had used to promote a recent event at JPEC, “Booty Warz.” The flyer featured a scantily clad African-American woman with other female bare-bottoms in the background. “This picture advertised an event at Mr. Lawton's business called 'Booty Warz.' My wife looked at this picture and said it was the most demeaning thing to women she's ever seen,” said Sanders. “I believe Mr. Lawton's advertisement to 'take over Madison with a Booty Warz' speaks for itself,” added Sanders. “I do not believe a special exception which allows such use of the property as part of doing business as a bar/tavern lounge near downtown businesses that includes existing family dwellings and places of worship would be advantageous to the community and the neighborhood... I ask that you find that [granting the exception]... would have an adverse effect on the public interest and deny the [exception] request.” In addressing the criteria that “the proposed use will adversely influence the living conditions in the neighborhood,” Sanders asked, “Who would want to live and raise a family in a neighborhood having specials such as the 'Booty Warz,' beginning at 10 p.m., which are bound to spill out into the streets and nearby properties?”

“This is a fully functional event center already. Whether we are able to serve beer and wine or not, we are going to be here. You are probably [going to] see flyers like that again,” said Lawton in response. Lawton then went into a line of questioning asking Sanders if he had ever taken his daughter to the beach. “Let me be real clear, you will see more flyers of that nature hanging in that business.” Lawton brought up the fact that there was already a bar in the Mexican restaurant and that bar was able to have a license because at least 51 percent of their business was food sales. Lawton said he would only be serving alcohol a couple of times a month. He asked if Sanders' opposition was based on the fact that he did not sell food or if it was because of the “Booty Warz” flyer. Sanders reminded Lawton that his main opposition was the “proposed use is out of scale with the needs of the neighborhood or the community.”

Then a local pastor, Pastor Jerry Alexander of Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church, spoke in opposition to granting the exception. “We are in the business of teaching our young ladies morality,” said Alexander. “When you mix alcohol with half-naked women, that is a recipe for disaster.”

Lawton asked Alexander if “from one African-American male to another, could you have called me with your concerns [for] a better way to have handled this?”

“I'm talking now about the City of Madison. It doesn't matter if you're white, black, or Puerto Rican, I would still be opposed,” said Alexander to a chorus of applause from those at the meeting. Again, Lawton reminded Alexander that he fully intended to continue with events such as “Booty Warz” in the future, regardless of whether he is allowed to serve alcohol or not.

The next person to speak in opposition to the exception was Rev. Octavious Tookes, who contended that granting the exception was not advantageous to the community. “[There is] no compatibility with the two churches on both ends of [the event center],” said Tookes. “What you [Lawton] are offering to every Christian is contemptible,” said Tookes.

Lawton began his cross examination of Tookes by pointing out that since the Mexican restaurant and the Corner Grill are allowed to serve alcohol, he should be allowed to serve alcohol as well. “What's good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Lawton.

“If they were advertising the things you are advertising, I would [seek to] have them shut down,” said Tookes.

Lawton then attempted to engage Tookes in a discussion between what is “immoral” and what is “illegal.”

The next person to speak in opposition to the exception was Pastor George Williams. “Most things never start with their full intent exposed,” said Williams. Williams pointed out that granting the exception was “out of scale with our community... We won't stand for it.”

“Are you aware I'm not going anywhere?” asked Lawton.

The floor was opened up to comments from the public. Deloris Jones, Rev. Flowers and Carla Jones all spoke in opposition to granting the exception.

In closing arguments, Sanders reiterated his opposition based on his previously mentioned provisions. Alexander, Tookes and Williams declined to make closing arguments.

“For as many people who have been in opposition, there have been just as many who have been supportive,” said Lawton in his closing arguments. None of those people supporting Lawton spoke at the meeting.

A motion to deny the exception was made by Adjustment Board member Glenda McCall on the basis of the following:

Changed or changing conditions find the proposed use to be advantageous to the community and the neighborhood. (In McCall's opinion, Lawton failed to prove granting the exception would have been advantageous to the neighborhood or community.)

The proposed use will adversely influence living conditions in the neighborhood.

The proposed use will be deterrent to the improvement or development of adjacent property in accord with existing regulations.

The proposed use is out of scale with the needs of the neighborhood and the community.

The motion to deny the exception was passed unanimously. Lawton does have the right to appeal this decision.

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