With Bonnie Ruben a no-show in court Thursday, Richmond County Magistrate Judge H. Scott Allen gave the Augusta businesswoman one last chance to repair a former department store and burned-out nightclub she owns in the downtown historic district.
Allen approved an agreement reached this week to obtain a boarding permit in the next 30 days to “mothball” the two buildings Ruben owns in the 700 and 900 blocks of Broad Street that once housed a J.C. Penney and The Bayou restaurant, which was gutted by fire in June 2001.
Under the terms of the six-month deal, which was crafted under a law passed March 24 in Augusta, Ruben must also have the buildings analyzed to make sure the Penney’s interior and The Bayou’s rear wall are structurally sound and must submit a written statement for each about possible future uses.
With the case set to observe its first anniversary next month, Allen said that if the plan fails, he is going to refer the matter to State Court, possibly for a jury to decide the vacant properties’ fate.
He was upset Thursday that Ruben was not in court, even after her attorney, Bill Trotter, told the judge that he asked her not to attend because the agreement had been reached and the hearing’s notice stated that it was for the purposes of arraignment.
“This court and the city have given (Ruben) every opportunity. All we have been looking for is compliance,” Allen said at the hearing. “Obviously, if she was concerned about this, she would have said, ‘I’ll be here,’ regardless of whether you told her to come.”
The Augusta Planning and Development department opened a case against Ruben on Sept. 24, when senior inspector Larry Lariscy cited her for the Bayou building at 904 Broad St. “not being maintained.”
No further explanation was provided on the ticket, but Lariscy said the roofless building needed its front repainted, its rear entrance secured, its inside cleared of small trees and the rear wall examined by an engineer because of the settling foundation.
On Oct. 22, he issued Ruben a second notice, stating that the old J.C. Penney store at 732 Broad St. 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 tiles falling from the exterior.
Though many of the issues cited have been addressed, Lariscy said in court that Ruben has not hired an engineer to examine either building and that the city lacks confirmation that The Bayou’s interior was cleaned.
“I’ve already paved the way,” Lariscy told Allen in assuring him a permit will be approved.
Trotter said Ruben plans to repair windows at the old Penney’s building and will immediately apply for a permit to do so. He was uncertain about possible future uses, but Lariscy said extensions can be granted.
“We are actively looking for uses for the two buildings, but we do not have anything that is economically feasible that represents a future plan for the properties,” Trotter said.
Allen said he would not punish Ruben for Trotter’s lapse in judgment but said she could have faced a maximum of 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine for her absence.
“We certainly didn’t mean to slight the court,” Trotter said after the hearing.