An overflow crowd gathered at the Poolesville, MD, Town Hall on Wednesday night to highlight the impacts the sudden closing of White’s Ferry has had on life in that rural community for the past eight months
For two centuries, the ferry has provided a connection between Loudoun and Montgomery counties across the Potomac River. The operation came to a halt in December, after the cable guiding the ferry across the river snapped, a Loudoun Circuit Court ruling that the ferry operators lack legal access to the property used for the ferry’s Virginia landing and the ferry owners and landowners were unable to come to terms on a new deal.
Principally, the ferry has been viewed as an important commuter service, carrying 600 to 800 vehicles per day. But in the eight months since operations ceased, residents on the Maryland side have seen heavy economic and tourism impacts, speakers said during the meeting. In town, businesses ranging from restaurants to the hardware story have cited significant ferry-related losses that fell on top of the COVID-caused revenue declines, Poolesville Area Chamber of Commerce Chamber President Tom Kettler said. And residents who had been used to jumping on the ferry for a quick 15-minute trip to shop, work or visit family in Leesburg now face an hour-long drive.
The meeting helped build the foundation about the public necessity of the ferry—an element that will be important if the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors moves to obtain the landing by condemnation. That’s an option being studied by the county staff, with a report to the board expected in October.
The use of eminent domain is adamantly opposed by the family who owns the landing property and is cited as the best option available by the new ferry owners, Chuck and Stacey Kuhn.
Starting 1952, Rockland Farm, home of the Rust family, hosted White’s Ferry’s landing in Virginia for $5 a year. In the 1990s, the ferry owners pushed to expand the landing, which the family declined—then in 2004, the ferry owners bulldozed and expanded the landing anyway. That led to a stop work order and subsequent lawsuit for damages from the county government, and the end of the 1952 lease agreement. But ferry service continued anyway while the owners of Rockland Farm and Whites Ferry owners fought a protracted legal battle, concluding in 2020 when the court ruled Whites Ferry had been trespassing since the new landing was built.
When his family bought the ferry operation in February, Chuck Kuhn said he was optimistic he could bring a fresh approach to the talks with the owners. However, that deal has not materialized and the struggles to come to an agreement have gotten more public, and more bitter.
In August, Libby Devlin, manager of the property and a member of the family that owns Rockland Farm, sent a letter to Kuhn, copied to county supervisors, laying out five offers to get service running again. Many of those were similar to what they offered to the previous owner, ranging from a use fee of 50 cents per vehicle, to a $150,000 a year fee, to a $2 million permanent easement. They also offered to enter binding arbitration, or to explore buying Whites Ferry from Kuhn for more than what he paid, if he disclosed how much he paid.
Kuhn rejected those options.
During Wednesday night’s meeting, he was asked by an audience member if a binding arbitration or mediation effort would offer the most expedient path to reopening the ferry, more so than a condemnation lawsuit.
Kuhn said he had exhausted the avenues for negotiation.
“I have zero optimism that continuing to try to negotiate directly—with or without arbitration or mediation—with the Virginia shoreline will be successful in reopening the ferry,” he told the crowd. “I tried. I do not think it is a good use of the time. I do not think it is a good use of funds. I’ve exhausted my abilities to be successful there—whether it’s been trying to purchase the farm, whether it’ trying to purchase a reasonable landing right with reasonable terms.”
Of the offer of a $2 million easement sale, he said, “if we took that deal, you all wouldn’t use the ferry anyway, because you couldn’t afford it.”
He said, on top of wage increases, increased fuel and insurance cost, and new staffing regulations, fares would quadruple. “Opening a ferry that you can’t afford to utilize isn’t going to help the community,” he said.
Devlin said the family is only looking for a fair deal and has been subject to unfair attacks.
“I hear neighbors from Selma Estates and Raspberry Falls and they talk about us as, like, greedy,” Devlin said. “I don’t know that people realize that Rockland Farm and the Rust family are the same thing.”
She pointed to the family’s contributions to Loudoun over the years—contributions that made things like the Rust Library, Rust Nature Sanctuary and Ida Lee Park possible.
“There’s just so much that the people who have lived at Rockland have contributed,” Devlin. “We also contributed having the ferry land on our property for 16 years for nothing, and before that only $5 a year. And to have the county turn around and condemn it for some businessperson’s profit and use, it just seems really not right and a really bad precedent.”
Rockland Farm’s representatives were not invited to the meeting in Poolesville nor, they say, informed of it. Devlin issued a statement before the meeting saying she was disappointed not have been asked to participate.
“It’s upsetting that the citizens of Montgomery and Loudoun counties have had to suffer without this important regional transportation service due to White’s Ferry’s refusal to work with us to update a nearly 70-year-old contract for the use of our landing,” she stated. “Instead, White’s Ferry has chosen to work behind the scenes, lobbying the government to condemn our private property. The government’s exercise of eminent domain should not be used as a tool for a private enterprise’s financial gain.”
She also wrote that the Town of Poolesville “will give White’s Ferry a platform to deliver only one side of the story. Rockland Farm wants to make it known that we want the Ferry open now and have been making every effort to make that happen in a way that is reasonable and fair to both sides.”
At the Maryland meeting, Loudoun Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said that once the staff’s recommendations are presented in October a vote on whether to proceed with condemnation could be held by December. Condemnation is not the only option being considered, he noted, while encouraging the residents to contact board members and come speak at their meetings in Leesburg to share their views on the ferry.
Kershner also provided an update on Loudoun’s efforts to widen Rt. 15 north of Leesburg to four-lanes to address longstanding safety and congestion problems. That effort and reopening the ferry will help the region in the short-term, he said, but by 2040 Rt. 15 is expected to be over capacity again.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the need, at some point, for a bridge crossing between Maryland and Virginia. If our jurisdictions are truly serious about mitigating congestion, providing solid solutions for our residents we must start discussions between our political entities in this vein. We owe it to our residents on both sides of the river who suffer through this congestion on a regular basis,” Kirshner said.
Kuhn agreed that condemnation was not a foregone conclusion but pledged to have the ferry up and running by next summer.
“If that fails, it is not the only thing we’re relying on. We do have options two, three and four that we’ll move to,” he said.
“I’m not kidding. I’m committed to making sure the ferry opens and I’m not saying that to get the team excited. I’m telling you, one way or the other, this ferry is going to move and it’s going to move before summer of 2022. One way or the other that ferry will be open before summer of 2022. That’s my commitment to Poolesville, to my family, to the Loudoun County community.”