The Friends' suit languished in federal court until early 1977, when the Friends and the NRA agreed to take the case to the state Land Court. The Friends contended that 11 ancient public pathways -- those "wayes to the waterfront" -- were protected and couldn't be extinguished by the authority's eminent domain taking of the waterfront property.
"It wasn't just a set of streets," Harris said. "It was an issue of freedom."
Harris said the earliest English settlers had brought with them the principle that people were guaranteed access to the marketplace, and the "wayes" represented that access. Not coincidentally, preservation of the "wayes" would also guarantee that no one could put up a building that blocked off the river from the public.
Harris said the Friends weren't seeking to thwart development on the waterfront, but rather to keep the public access open and make sure the configuration of buildings would be perpendicular to the river, as in Thompson's proposal.
"If they'd picked his plan there wouldn't have been a fight over 'wayes to the waterfront,'" Harris said.
The case went to trial in late June 1978 before Land Court Chief Justice William Randall, who in early July traveled to Newburyport to conduct a view of the site. After eight days of testimony, 20 witnesses and 115 exhibits (including 102 by the Friends), Randall issued a 33-page decision on Jan. 30, 1979. In it, he dismissed the Friends' case in its entirety.
A month later, the Friends filed their appeal. A three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court heard oral arguments in November 1979 and, in February 1980, issued a ruling.
The court upheld the bulk of Randall's original decision but found two "wayes" had not been legally abolished. However, the court also ruled that those "wayes" only existed in their original form, that they did not automatically extend to the river when the waterfront was filled over time.