Battle over vacant buildings in downtown Augusta could go to court

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 7:05 PM
Last updated 9:46 PM
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A heated legal battle is brewing in downtown Augusta’s historic district, where city notices to demolish or rehabilitate two vacant buildings have set off fighting over property that hasn’t received much attention in more than a decade.

The former J.C. Penney Department Store located at 732-738 Broad Street was recently added to Historic Augusta's annual list of endangered properties.   FILE/STAFF
The former J.C. Penney Department Store located at 732-738 Broad Street was recently added to Historic Augusta's annual list of endangered properties.

Last week, Richmond County Magistrate Judge H. Scott Allen gave Bonnie Ruben and the city of Augusta 30 days to reach an agreement on whether a former department store and burned nightclub she owns on the 700 and 900 blocks of Broad Street are not structurally sound and require repair, or are free of violations and should be left alone.

If the two cannot come to a consensus, the case will likely be transferred to State Court for a jury to decide the fate of the buildings that once housed a J.C. Penney and The Bayou restaurant, which was gutted by fire in June 2001.

City attorneys and Ruben’s defense team are already preparing their arguments for court.

“We have to go to trial to prove those buildings are in compliance,” Bill Trotter, an Augusta lawyer representing Ruben, said Tuesday.

Ruben and the Augusta Planning and Development Department have been quarrelling over the state of her two downtown properties for at least 10 months.

In September, senior inspector Larry Lariscy cited Ruben for the vacant Bayou building at 904 Broad St. “not being maintained.”

No further explanation was provided on the ticket, but Lariscy said Tuesday the roofless building needed its front repainted, rear entrance secured, inside cleared of small trees and rear wall examined by an engineer because of a settling foundation.

A month later, on Oct. 22, he issued Ruben a second notice, stating the old J.C. Penney store was “unfit for commercial, industrial or business use” and that she had 30 days to bring it into compliance with city code by “rehabilitation or demolition.”

Among the violations the inspector listed were a cracked outside wall on the top floor, roof leaks causing interior dampness, windows not being watertight and loose tile falling form the building’s exterior.

He wrote that Ruben again needed to hire a licensed engineer to determine how to fix the Penney building’s cracked wall, which he said was “not structurally sound.”

Though many of the issues cited were addressed, Lariscy said in court that Ruben has not hired a engineer to examine either building.

After the hearing, he said if she did, the two sides could avoid trial, but that Ruben will not communicate with the city and “it’s been a very tedious struggle to get her to cooperate with the code” – including painting the front of the former Bayou lounge.

“She has been completely derelict in her duties to maintain her old property and has quite a disdain for any authority in Augusta who asks her to repair or upkeep the buildings,” Lariscy said. “She is going to be held accountable either way, because it’s her property and the buildings are in such a state of disrepair that we find them to be a potentially dangerous situation.”

Though Ruben declined comment, Trotter said Lariscy’s claims that his client has been uncooperative are untrue. He said, if anything, it’s Lariscy who has not done his job.

“Bonnie Ruben has a lot of money tied up in these buildings on Broad Street,” he said. “She does not want them to deteriorate or be a public nuisance that is a safety or health hazard, but at the same time, we don’t want to spend money that is unnecessary.”

Trotter said the inspector has failed to provide evidence that either property - both of which have stood for decades - is in danger of collapsing and argued it’s “contrary to the constitutional principles under which we live” to expect Ruben to prove otherwise, especially since neither building is occupied or being used for commercial purposes, as cited.

“If you are going to charge us with a violation, tell us what the violation is. Don’t’ tell us to go out and determine if one exists,” he said. “The burden of proof is on the city.”

Lariscy said the city is not asking Ruben to make any repairs not requested from other property owners downtown. He remained hopeful, but hesitant, that a pre-trial resolution could be reached.

“We don’t want to lose these buildings,” he said. “Our objective is to keep the buildings downtown safe and secure, and I think (Ruben) would want to be prudent with her own affairs to avoid being potentially liable for a disaster, such as a building collapsing.”

Trotter said Ruben has cared for her buildings, both of which are available to rent and will be built to suit.

“She has a reputation to lose. She has a financial investment to lose. She has time to lose,” Trotter said of Ruben. “All of those things are valuable to her and none of them does she wish to lose.”

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Pops 07/29/14 - 08:27 pm
There are small trees in one of the "buildings"?

"Trotter said Ruben has cared for her buildings"....
What kind of care???? Pouring MiracleGro into the building hardly qualifies as "care".....
I guess that would qualify as a "greenspace" dismissed....carry on people......

janderson1945 07/29/14 - 08:42 pm
Glad the county is finally doing something

These buildings are a blight on the city and Ms. Ruben is not doing anything constructive to maintain a positive look for downtown Augusta. Even the buildings that she does maintain are done so very poorly. Maybe they should send the Fire Department and Health Department to her downtown hotel while they are at it.

Stop wasting taxpayer monies and spending money on an attorney and do what you should have done quite a while ago. Clean up your mess or demolish it please!

deestafford 07/29/14 - 09:26 pm
Everyone should be treated the same...

Everyone should be treated the same in according to the same standards. Then IF the standards are not met the property owner should be notified in detail as to the specific violations as they related to specific codes. Then the owner should have the option of fixing or tearing down.
If they refuse to do what is necessary legal action should be taken.
In this case it appears adequate time has passed to correct the situations and Mrs Ruben could be on the verge of being a slum lord if what I read is correct and accurate.

Brad Owens
Brad Owens 07/29/14 - 09:56 pm

Well, I certainly hope that ALL of the buildings downtown will receive this level of scrutiny.

raul 07/29/14 - 10:14 pm
As they should, Brad.

As they should, Brad.

corgimom 07/30/14 - 07:30 am
Hey, doesn't everybody want

Hey, doesn't everybody want to rent a building that has small trees growing in it?

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 07/30/14 - 08:27 am

There's an old bank building in downtown Tennille that has trees growing in it. The citizens don't seem to get upset about it there.

Lori Davis
Lori Davis 07/30/14 - 10:16 am
Larry Lariscy needs to be

Larry Lariscy needs to be careful. His supposed 30 year code enforcement,"Inspector," reign over Harrisburg has left the entire neighborhood in disrepair. Wonder how that happened when he was writing all of those tickets?? Lots of information on his job performance.

hoptoad 07/30/14 - 11:07 am
Leaving buildings like these

Leaving buildings like these not only ruin the looks and image of Augusta but provide places for all types of criminals to hide, discourages new business, and discourages more evening business.

The cost of renovating or demolishing these buildings should set squarely on the shoulders of the owners.

hoptoad 07/30/14 - 11:08 am
Augusta's nick name "The

Augusta's nick name "The Garden City" wasn't given because of trees growing in buildings. Let's keep the garden outside and tend it properly.

corgimom 07/30/14 - 11:19 am
Here's the bottom line. She

Here's the bottom line.

She doesn't want to spend the money to fix it, because nobody has, or wants, to rent it.

The money that she has spent on attorneys would've been far better spent fixing up her eyesores.

Nobody told her to buy those properties; but she's required to maintain them, and it's not RC's fault that nobody wants to rent them. She should've thought of that before she bought them.

Conservative Man
Conservative Man 07/30/14 - 05:50 pm
While I agree...

…That Ms Ruben should take care of her properties, I also agree with Brad Owens and Lori Davis…..

First Brad is correct when he says he hopes "all buildings downtown should receive this level of scrutiny…It is well known that there are MANY properties in the CBD that are out of code…some owned by very prominent and well connected members of Augusta "society"..….wonder when their tickets were issued?…

Second Lori Davis is correct when she points out Larry Lariscey's deplorable track record ask it pertains to his many year "enforcement" (snicker) career in H'burg…Interesting that now he suddenly decides to be gung ho when it comes to doing his job, considering the many illegal boarding houses that sprang up during his tenure overseeing that neighborhood...

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