=$1.5 million: Razor wire widow sues City, RTF

NEWS- $1.5 million: Razor wire widow sues City, RTF

Months after razor-wiring widow Shirley Presley avoided a misdemeanor conviction in Charlottesville District Court, she has filed a $1.5 million civil suit in U.S. District Court against the City of Charlottesville and the nonprofit Rivanna Trails Foundation.

In her Valentine's Day filing, Presley claims, among other things, that she was deprived of due process and that both the City and the Foundation conspired to cause people to trespass on her land. Her attorney, Debbie Wyatt, says Presley is simply trying to recover from the trauma of the last three years during which hikers and bikers crossed her property on their way along the Rivanna River, leaving trash, vandalizing her property, and occasionally pitching tents.

"The biggest thing is that she has a right to her property," says Wyatt, who took over the case from Presley's former attorney, Fred Payne.

The City's attorney, Alvaro Inigo, and the Foundation's Richmond-based counsel, Stanley Wellman, did not immediately return the Hook's calls, but Jerry Tomlin, the City's top building inspector, says he believes Presley's razor wire, which remained on her property as of mid-April, is still illegal.

"Hopefully, the federal judge will see the real case here," says Tomlin, "that razor wire is illegal."

Presley's problems began in 2001 after her husband died following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease. Newly widowed, the nearly 70-year-old Presley soon became fearful when she noticed people crossing the lower portion of her .73-acre Bland Circle property on foot. She became angry when she realized the people were crossing because her land had been included on the Rivanna Trail Foundation map, directing hikers and bikers on a continuous 20-mile loop around the City.

Unlike other City residents who have granted easements to the nonprofit Foundation, neither Presley nor any of her Bland Circle neighbors had been asked permission.

"It was an oversight," said [a Foundation official] when Presley objected and piled brush across her land. The Foundation posted a detour on the trail and reprinted their map sans Presley's property, but, Presley claimed, the trespassing continued.

Indeed, when the Hook began covering the saga in July 2002, a reporter came upon a hiker dismantling Presley's brush pile.

"I'm from California," shouted the angry hiker, throwing brush from the trail, "and we believe in freedom." Such incidents helped Presley earn free legal services from her attorneys and made her something of a property rights hero for fighting the government to protect her land from trespassers.

When Presley realized her brush pile was an ineffective deterrent, she soon chose something a bit more menacing: razor wire, installing two 30-foot, coiling stretches of it just two-feet off the ground– eye level for many domestic pets, and chest level for small children. In fact, in two separate incidents, a dog and an admittedly trespassing jogger have been slashed in the barrier.

The City issued a citation in 2003, but because of the way the code was written, Presley was allowed six months to remove the illegal obstruction. In [April] 2004 with the razor wire still in place, and now landscaped with azaleas bushes the City issued a new warning, giving her 10 days to remove the wire. Presley declined, and the City took her to court for violating a new City law prohibiting razor wire on residential property, a class one misdemeanor.

Presley returned fire, attacking the City for passing the new law and subpoenaing 13 witnesses, including Tomlin, City manager Gary O'Connell, police chief Tim Longo, and this reporter.

On October 29, Judge Bob Downer in Charlottesville District Court didn't see things as the City had hoped. Because the new section of the City Code specifies that razor wire must "enclose or partially enclose" the property, Downer dismissed the charge.

In their response to Presley's federal lawsuit, the City and Foundation deny "malicious prosecution" and urge the court to dismiss the case by attacking the notion that they could conspire "to cause others to trespass." They also say the statute of limitations has expired in Presley's claim and that the City enjoys sovereign immunity from such suits.

Wyatt says no hearing has been scheduled, but she believes a federal judge could issue a ruling at a summary judgment hearing before a trial.

Tomlin maintains his hope that the judge will rule against Presley.

"I don't have a problem with her protecting her property," he says. "But a sign should be sufficient. She doesn't have to use something to endanger animals."

Shirley Presley becomes a suit-or with a Valentine's Day lawsuit against the City.


* In our print version of the story above, we misattributed the "oversight" quotation to a certain Foundation official who was not, in fact, the official who gave that comment to the Hook. The story above has been corrected including our mistake on the month that the City cited Presley under its new razor wire law, also corrected above in this online edition–editor.