Razor[base ']s end? Presley[base ']s suit shot down

The city scored a point in its ongoing battle against the "razor wire widow." On Friday October 7, U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed the $1.5 million suit Shirley Presley had lodged against the City and the Rivanna Trails Foundation for various claims including conspiracy and unlawfully taking her property along the Rivanna River.

The city simply "appropriated an easement" across Presley's property, wrote Moon, dismissing all her claims. "Such a taking cannot rise to the level of a Fourth Amendment seizure."

"I'm pretty sure we'll be appealing," says Presley's attorney, Debbie Wyatt, who says Presley continues to endure trespassers crossing the heavily wooded riverfront below her Bland Circle home. "She had to call the police in the last week or two for more destruction," Wyatt says.

Citing the "potentially ongoing" nature of the case, the City's attorney, Alvaro Inigo, declined comment.

Presley's problems date to 2002 when she learned the Rivanna Trails Foundation had printed maps featuring a trail across her land without her permission.

Though a Foundation spokesperson called it an "oversight," and the Foundation reissued new maps with a detour onto River Road, Presley contended that the damage had already been done.

Loud noise late at night, damage to plant life, and vandalism were among the issues Presley reported.

When a large brush pile she'd placed across the trail failed to block trespassers, Presley resorted to two gleaming 30-foot stretches of coiled razor wire 18 inches off the ground.

Alerted to the new barricade, the City cited Presley for a violation of the City Code section forbidding barbed wire on residential property, and gave her six months to remove it. She refused. In response, City Council rewrote the law to make it more clearly applicable to residential situations, and in April 2004, Presley was cited under the new razor-wire ban.

The case finally went to trial– with 13 witnesses subpoenaed, including this journalist– in Charlottesville District Court on October 29, 2004.

Judge Robert Downer ruled for Presley, explaining her razor wire neither "enclosed" nor "partially enclosed" her property, the action forbidden in the ordinance.

The issue mobilized Presley fans and foes.

"As a Democrat, I am totally disgusted by the way this 'world class city' and its overwhelmingly Democratic government has treated one of our citizens, Mrs. Shirley Presley," blasted Mrs. J. Suter in a letter to the Hook published November 18, 2004. "They have badgered, bullied, and harassed her, the very demographic this city claims to be so concerned about: property owning, taxpaying, local residents."

Others saw Presley's razor wire as an uncivic-minded overreaction– and a dangerous one at that.

"I wonder if lovable Shirley ("Razorwire") Presley has considered land mines to interdict the Rivanna River Trail?," wrote the late Hamlin Caldwell in a letter published August 14, 2003. "A few 'bouncing Betty's' and 'toe-poppers' might take care of those heinous hikers and their pooches and smaller children."

In fact, Presley's wire has injured both a jogger and a golden retriever accompanying his owner on a hike. Both the jogger and the hiker appeared to be trespassing on Presley's property at the time, but a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals points out trespassers aren't the only ones at risk.

"An animal could be mortally wounded if an artery was severed," says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with PETA. "What a hideous device."

For now, Presley's razor wire remains legally on her land. And while she is considering whether to appeal her suit to the Fourth Circuit, the city is contemplating again rewriting the ordinance regulating razor wire within city limits.

"I think that if it's everyone's desire truly to prohibit razor wire in the city, period," says assistant city attorney Lisa Kelly, "we're going to have to revisit the ordinance."

Shirley Presley 's $1.5 million suit is dismissed.


The coils of razor wire remain on Presley's property.