March 2, 2018

Legal expert champions public's access to Maine's beaches

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
Orlando Delogu, professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Law, shown here with his book, “Maine's Beaches are Public Property,” in the office of Danielle Conway, the law school's dean.

An expert on land use and environmental law is urging Maine's highest court to reexamine two controversial rulings from the late 1980s restricting public access to beaches.

Commonly known as the Bell cases, they limited public use rights on intertidal lands, the area above water at low tide and submerged at high tide, and found that the sandy area in dispute was privately owned.

The rulings stem from an action brought by 45 owners of property in Wells above Moody Beach, invoking an ordinance from the 17th century when Maine belonged to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court limited public use rights on intertidal lands to "fishing, fowling and navigation" and gave title to those lands to adjacent property owners.

Orlando Delogu, professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Law, disagrees, arguing in a recently published book that Maine's beaches are public property and it's high time the Bell cases are overturned.

"No other state besides Massachusetts and Maine has gone as far in giving away public property to private owners," he told Mainebiz, adding that public property is held by government in trust for the people and "can't be given away to private owners willy-nilly."

Delogu, who served on the Portland City Council and Planning Board and helped found the Maine Civil Liberties Union, lays out his arguments in a 267-page book entitled "Maine's Beaches Are Public Property," published by Tower Publishing of Standish. It sells for $24.95.

In an interview this week, Delogu said the Bell decisions are important "because the court made it clear its ruling applied statewide." Including its offshore islands, Maine has thousands of miles of intertidal lands.

The 81-year-old knows the cases inside out, having worked on four friend-of-the-court briefs in the case and penned several law review articles on the topic.

"The book pulls together 35 years of thinking and writing into a single volume," he said.

After spending 14 months on the book, he's giving himself the same amount of time to convince the seven justices sitting on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court today to reexamine the controversial rulings, noting in Chapter 2 that "courts are human and make mistakes."

He's now planning speaking engagements and wider distribution of his book.

"If I haven't moved the needle sufficiently in 14 months," he said, "I'll simply say I've given it my best shot and it's up to others to carry the argument further."


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