Keith Hawkins, left, and Geraldine Patton search for tombstones in the historic Second Baptist Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery.

Robert Long|DTT

Members of a historic African-American church in Hernando fear they are in danger of losing access to bury loved ones — or so members of Second Baptist Missionary Baptist Church say.

It seems construction of a new proposed retail store fronting the cemetery might further encroach on the historic graveyard, located adjacent to Hernando Memorial Park, off U.S. Hwy. 51 and Oak Grove Road.

The Second Baptist Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery dates back more than 140 years.

For more than two hours Tuesday, the new slate of Hernando Planning Commissioners — both old and new — grappled with sensitive issues, including the cemetery matter and another involving the recusal of the city's planning director on final plat approval for another phase of St. Ives subdivision.

It appears that at least one of those issues is in the process of being worked out — that of access to graves in the cemetery.

On the cemetery issue, planning commissioners heard from both sides, including the Rev. Quentin Taylor of Southaven, the pastor of Second Baptist Missionary Baptist Church, and Brian Hall, a representative of Cerberus Construction Services, representing applicant Qais Amros, who wishes to construct a new retail establishment, colloquially called the "quick stop," and otherwise known as J&J Market and Deli, on two tracts comprising three acres which fronts the cemetery on one side.

"Where our cemetery is, the drive stops," Taylor said. "We have to walk down a hill. If they take our right-of-way, how will we get to our cemetery."

The issue of access of church members to graves of loved ones is primarily the issue.

The cemetery is located in a partially wooded area just beyond the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 51 and Oak Grove Road.

"When the quick stop is built, it will take the entrance away to the cemetery," Taylor said, addressing planning commissioners.

Members of the church received a letter from realtor Jamie Tipton asking church members to give right-of-way to the owner of the property, so that in turn, church members can have access to the cemetery.

The problem is that the cemetery is so old, no right-of-way by the former freed American slave congregation was ever recorded.

"If we don't own right-of-way how can we give it?" Taylor asked.

City Attorney Kenny Stockton informed the congregation that church members may have gained right-of-way or "gained that right" through prescriptive use over time.

"By continued use over a period of time, you can get a prescriptive easement," Stockton said, adding the issue will likely have to be resolved through property owners.

Hall, of Cerberus Construction, said the owners of the retail site are open to providing a buffer zone, which includes landscaping.

Geraldine Patton, 73, said she hopes something can be worked out. Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in the small cemetery, cradled in a gully and stretching up the side of a hill.

"My mother — if she were still alive — would be 105," Patton said. "That cemetery has been there for 140 years. We have always gone straight through. I have not been able to find my parents' graves. I feel it (cemetery) was grandfathered in. Maybe we don't have a deed, but it has been there for 140 years. My daddy was buried there in 1971 and my sister was buried there in 1948."

Church members said the cemetery is still active, with a burial being recorded just last year.

"We are looking to give land to the church and cemetery," Hall said. "We don't want to make it inaccessible to anybody." Hall added that the property where the retail store will be located was a concrete mixing company for a long time. A driveway or road to the facility did exist at one time.

"If the store will block the entranceway, how can we get to the graves?" Taylor asked.

"We may be able to put a path at the back of the property," Hall said.

Taylor said much more access will be needed.

"When we bring our loved ones, we will need more access to that cemetery — we need room for a funeral procession," Taylor said.

Robert Cooke, longtime resident and a member of the Hernando Baptist Cemetery Association, a private cemetery, located adjacent to both Second Baptist M.B. Cemetery and the publicly-owned Hernando Memorial Park Cemetery, said, he, too, was hopeful that an amicable situation could be worked out.

"Our property was surveyed two years ago," Cooke said. "Our southwest corner adjoins the property in discussion. We have no problem with whatever the Planning Commission decides. At one time, the city deeded the old cemetery to the association. We have a perfectly congenial relationship."

Meanwhile, the other issue, final plat approval for a new section of St. Ives subdivision, remains yet unresolved due to the recusal of Planning Director Jared Darby on this one issue.

It seems that Darby is a resident of St. Ives subdivision on Hernando's eastern boundary, and has decided that his conscience dictate he recuse himself rather than preside or give direction on a matter in which he may have an ethical conflict either with the applicant or matter.

The fact that Darby is a resident of St. Ives subdivision is not the overriding reason for the recusal, according to sources at City Hall.

However, there was no elaboration on the recusal except for the statement given to planning commissioners.

"After reviewing file PL-1147, I have made the decision to remove myself from processing the application," Darby said in the statement. "I made the decision based upon the American Institute of Certified Planner's Code of Ethics. As a result, I would ask that the Planning Commission table the application so that staff may hire a professional planner that does not have any conflicts with the code of ethics listed above. Thank you in advance for this courtesy, and I thank the applicant for their understanding."

A substitute planner will have to be installed to review this one issue, according to Darby. Perhaps, the commission could decide the matter on its own without having to hire another planner. The issue was tabled.

That doesn't sit well with St. Ives developer Brian Hill, who said he has been attempting to receive final plat approval for the past six weeks.

"I'm hit by this — it's kind of a surprise," Hill told planning commissioners. "We submitted this two or three weeks prior at the last meeting. This is final plat approval for an approved PUD (Planned Unit Development). We have 27 lots. I don't know where or how there could be a conflict. The full PUD was approved in 2009. My request is that we don't table it."

Stockton pointed out there was not a quorum present at the last planning commission meeting.

Planning Commissioner Leigh Wills said the issue can't move forward until a substitute director can be installed to review the application for final plat approval.

"We depend on the director to review plans and make sure they are right," Wills said. "At the time it was approved in 2009, he (Darby) was not the director. He (Darby) will have to get another director (planner) for us to look at it."

"Why did this not come up before now?" Hill asked.

Again, Stockton reiterated there was not a quorum present at the last planning commission meeting.

"We did not have a quorum due to a death and an emergency," Planning Commissioner Ellen Jernigan said. "We could not address that, at that time. To be honest, I would not like to make any decision without our planning director advising us. We have to table it until our next meeting. I regret that."

Newly-installed Planning Commissioner Robin Cotten asked if the matter could be reviewed between meetings.

Commissioner Leigh Wills said the matter could not deliberated upon out of public view.

"We have to do everything in public," Wills said. "There cannot be emails back and forth."

"Well, it is what it is," Hill said before excusing himself and leaving the room.

In other matters, the engineering firm of Mendrop Wages received approval for an applications to rezone property in the Old Nesbit area from a M-1 light industrial to a C-1 commercial zoning for an adult daycare facility that will serve special needs residents.

Also gaining approval was plat approval for Lee's Summit Phase 4 on the city's eastern side.

Additionally, planning commissioners heard of plans by North American Electric, located in the Hernando Industrial Park, to expand its plant facility.

Commissioners tabled an application for Sayle Oil Company.

At the outset of the meeting, Mayor Tom Ferguson thanked the slate of Planning Commissioners for being willing to serve, calling them leaders of the community at the "grassroots" level.

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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