NEWS- Still gleaming: Razor wire case heads back to court

Don't tread on me: Razor wire festively beribboned in pink, green, and blue continues to guard a tiny former stretch of the Rivanna Trail below Shirley Presley's Bland Circle bungalow.

Four years ago, Bland Circle resident Shirley Presley erected a pair of razor wire fences to keep hikers from crossing her brush pile-covered property along the Rivanna River. Today the brush pile is gone, but the razor wire remains, and Presley heads back to court early next year with her $1.5 million lawsuit against the city and the nonprofit that ran its walking trail across her property without permission.

When the Hook last reported on Presley in October 2005, her federal lawsuit had been dismissed in U.S. Western District Court in Charlottesville. Presley and her attorney, Debbie Wyatt, appealed, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her right to sue Charlottesville and the Rivanna Trails Foundation for violating her rights by effectively seizing part of her property for the trail. The suit will be heard in federal court here January 15, 2008.

Presley has successfully stymied the city's efforts to force her to remove the wire. In 2004, Judge Robert H. Downer ruled that City Code as written– forbidding razor wire that "encloses" or "partially encloses" property– doesn't apply, even though the sharp coils stretch on two sides of her property, from her embankment to the Rivanna River bluff.

Although Presley has thus far preserved her right to string a potentially lethal barrier across her property, some citizens are concerned that a wall of concertina wire that stretches from ground level to 45 inches high still poses a hazard to those who can't read the large signs warning of its presence, such as small children and animals.

"The issue to me is harming innocents," says Elizabeth Petofi. "A bird, a hawk, or a squirrel can run across it, and its feet are cut off before it knows it."

In 2004, the Hook reported that at least one person and one dog had been injured by Presley's unusual measure.

The case, according to Wyatt, isn't about Presley's right to string razor wire. "I'm defending her right to be left alone on her property," Wyatt says.

Petofi notes that she was friends in college with a man who had been blinded by a bootlegger's explosive boobytrap. Such measures are illegal in many jurisdictions and have resulted in civil judgments– even from victims who were trespassing.

"I respected [Presley's] wanting to keep people off her land," says Petofi, herself a landowner who has been troubled by trespassers. Nonethess, she notes, "A landowner has a certain responsibility if someone gets hurt."

City attorney Craig Brown says there have been recent discussions about settling the case before it heads back to court. "Until it's resolved," he says, "I'd better refrain from talking about razor wire."

"It will not be resolved with a trail across her property," predicts Wyatt. "It is not her desire or mine to need razor wire."

That would suit Petofi, who believes Presley is carrying the Fourth Amendment– the one giving the right be secure in one's home– too far.

"We certainly have lost all common sense when razor wire is out there," she says. "[Animals] can't exactly call 911 and say, 'I just got my legs amputated.'"