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Jackson Building battle may go on

City says structure is unfit to occupy

POSTED: February 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN/The Times

Tommy Williams replaces the fire doors Friday afternoon on the fifth floor of the Jackson Building. Replacing the fire doors is one of many repairs currently under way on the building after a lawsuit by the City of Gainesville.

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He has a makeshift office that is littered with boxes of emergency lights, exit signs and parts to fire sprinklers. A contractor’s truck is parked outside during the day.

The truck and the mess are signs that Lanier Bagwell is at least making an effort to repair the Jackson Building. Yet Gainesville officials say that he still has not done everything he is supposed to do to bring the downtown building up to city code.

On Jan. 28, Hall County Superior Court Judge Fred Bishop deemed the five-story building located at 114 Washington St. unfit for residential, commercial or business occupancy. Yet people live and work in the building; of the 15 residential apartments, only four are vacant. The Times only was able to speak with two residents; both said they had no problems with the condition of the building.

Rust has eaten away at the structural integrity of the nearly 100-year-old building’s exterior stairs, compromising the only means of escape from fire for some of the residents.

Careless painters have made the building’s fire sprinklers useless. Neglect has silenced many of the fire alarms. Fire marshals have been saying for some time that the building was a hazard to its occupants.

The City of Gainesville sued Bagwell last month over a list of more than 30 violations to the city’s code.

The suit resulted in a court order that gave Bagwell five days to obtain building permits for the court-ordered repairs; 15 days to submit an engineer’s report outlining the condition and repairs necessary for the exterior stairs; 30 days to make the repairs; and 45 days to take care of the less threatening code violations, such as moving a video surveillance system so it does not block access to the building’s electrical panels.

Bagwell says much of the necessary repairs on the building was to be completed this weekend, and the replacement of the exterior stairs will start on Monday.

But numerous city officials, from the city attorney to the manager of inspection services, said Bagwell has not met all of the court’s demands.

Many city employees, from the marshal’s office to the inspections department, deferred questions about the case to the city’s attorney, James E. "Bubba" Palmour, preferring not to comment on what they said could be a matter of ongoing litigation.

Larry Brown, manager of Gainesville’s inspection services department, said Bagwell has not obtained the necessary permits for electrical and plumbing work that has been done on the building. He said Bagwell has not submitted the letter from the engineer who inspected the exterior stairs, and he has yet to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the fifth floor apartment, which was renovated without a building permit and therefore occupied without an inspection.

Palmour has been made aware of the noncompliance, and it is possible that there could be further litigation, Brown said.

But Bagwell, who took over the financial responsibility of the building for his son, Benjamin Bagwell, in late August 2007, said he was not aware of the numerous code violations until Dec. 21.

On that date, fire marshals showed up with Palmour and said all the problems had to be fixed immediately or legal action would follow.

"I’ve never seen so many people," said Diane Bagwell, Lanier’s wife.

"They wanted me to fix the fire code violations," Lanier Bagwell said. "And I really didn’t know that these problems were there."

City officials say they had notified Benjamin Bagwell of the problems long before they met the Bagwells in court.

"It’s been an ongoing thing for a while," Brown said.

Benjamin Bagwell has owned the Jackson Building for nearly eight years and lives and works there. Lanier Bagwell said his son had known about the code violations, but was never forced to fix them.

"If you get by with something long enough, you think it’s not a problem," Lanier Bagwell said.

Yet, when Lanier Bagwell became aware of the issue in December, he did not fix the problems, and the city filed suit three weeks later.

Lanier Bagwell said he would never have had to go to court and he would have had no problem fixing the building if there had not been an issue with the building’s ownership. Lanier Bagwell said he and his son’s former wife, Jennifer Bagwell, were in a dispute over ownership when fire marshals showed up in December.

Jennifer Bagwell had a deed to secure a $395,000 debt on Benjamin Bagwell’s business, Tugaloo Piedmont Investments Co., Lanier Bagwell said. Because of the deed, Jennifer Bagwell claimed ownership of the building. The Norton Agency sent a letter to the building’s tenants on behalf of Jennifer Bagwell, informing them that the building was under new ownership and that they should send their rent to the Norton Agency.

No matter the Bagwells’ issues, City Manager Bryan Shuler said someone has to be responsible for the safety issues because the residents could have been at risk if a fire broke out.

"At the end of the day, the only goal of the city is to make sure the building is safe ... and all the occupants are safe," Shuler said.

That responsibility officially fell on Lanier Bagwell on Jan. 28 when the Bagwells met Gainesville officials in the courtroom. Jennifer Bagwell, who had been named as a respondent in the suit due to her claim of ownership on the building, withdrew her deed to secure debt, and she was no longer responsible for the building’s many code violations. Jennifer Bagwell did not return The Times’ call requesting comment.

"How much is this going to cost me? Tens of thousands of dollars ... I don’t know how much this is going to cost me," Lanier Bagwell said.

He said he has already spent nearly $3,000 in permits for construction on the 19,000-square-foot building.

Despite the money Lanier Bagwell has spent fixing the violations, Brown says the issue could end up back in court. Lanier Bagwell may have done some of the required repairs, but he has not, to the city’s knowledge, met all the court’s requirements.

"There was a court order to do some work there, and now they’re in violation of the court order," Brown said. "We may be back in court and probably will."



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