Battle over vacant buildings in downtown Augusta could go to court

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.

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.

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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