2020 | Transportation

UPDATED: White’s Ferry closes following Loudoun County court decision

Ruling stated that ‘no public landing’ exists on Virginia side

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Photo from Pete Piringer via Twitter

This story was updated at 7:20 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2020, to include comments from Montgomery County Council Member Andrew Friedson and Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, as well as to add additional context about the legal dispute.

White’s Ferry shut down its service across the Potomac River between Montgomery County and Loudoun County, Va., on Monday following a court decision that the ferry can’t land in Virginia.

The ferry — which shuttles passengers between areas near Poolesville on the Maryland side and Leesburg on the Virginia side — announced on its Facebook page Monday that it would cease operations effective immediately.

It said the closing is because of a decision in Rockland Farm LLC, et. al. v. White’s Ferry Inc. that “no public landing exists on the Virginia shoreline at White’s Ferry Road and the ferry is prohibited from landing at that location in Virginia.”

“As of the date of this press release Loudoun County, Virginia has declined to establish a public landing at that location,” the post stated.

White’s Ferry has operated since 1786 and is the last of 100 ferries that used to operate on the Potomac River, according to loudounhistory.org. The ferry operates on a cable across the river and can transport up to 24 vehicles per trip, according to the ferry’s website.

The court case originates from a dispute involving Historic Rockland, a historic estate in Leesburg often used as a wedding and event space. (Rockland Farm is not connected to Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville.)

The farm claims in the lawsuit that White’s Ferry violated a 1952 agreement by removing a retaining wall and replacing it with another, The Loudoun Times-Mirror reported on Monday. White’s Ferry has argued that its actions were justified because the areas where it operates are considered public rights of way, the Times-Mirror reported.

The venue posted on Facebook Monday that it sued White’s Ferry as a “last resort” after the companies couldn’t come to an agreement over the ferry’s use of the Rockland property.

“White’s Ferry took the position that it did not need to pay to use Rockland’s land to operate its private business,” the farm posted.

The farm wrote that on Nov. 23, the Loudoun County Circuit Court ruled in the case that White’s Ferry had no right to use Rockland’s land without an agreement, but the farm allowed the ferry to continue operating as long as it provided “fair compensation” to Rockland.

“In the event White’s Ferry no longer desired to operate the ferry, we also expressed a willingness to discuss a purchase of the business. Regrettably, White’s Ferry has chosen not to negotiate,” the farm posted.

Rockland’s post also noted that the farm still hopes to reach an agreement with White’s Ferry, and the decision to close was made by the ferry company alone.

Montgomery County Council Member Andrew Friedson, whose district includes White’s Ferry, wrote on Facebook Monday that the closure of the ferry is a “devastating blow to Western Montgomery County specifically and our region more broadly.”

“Deeply disappointed by this ruling and its impact on the ferry which has stood for centuries providing critical transportation access between Virginia and Maryland,” he wrote. “I have been in discussions with the Town of Poolesville and county and state officials to determine what options we have available moving forward.”

Friedson, in an interview Monday afternoon, said he learned about the impending closure of White’s Ferry Sunday night.

“It caught me by surprise and it was really concerning given the importance it has on Western Montgomery County and the entire region,” he said.

Friedson said he has been talking with others in Montgomery County Attorney’s Office, Montgomery County Department of Transportation, Loudoun County officials and Maryland state Sen. Brian Feldman, a Democrat whose district includes Poolesville.

Friedson said the dispute is between Rockland and White’s Ferry, which are both private enterprises, but officials from both Montgomery and Loudoun counties are discussing the matter.

“We are looking at what options may exist moving forward,” he said. “Ultimately, this is beyond the borders of Montgomery County and of Maryland, although it has a significant impact on our residents.”

Phyllis Randall, the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, wrote in a statement to Bethesda Beat Monday evening that the dispute is a “legal matter between a private property owner and the ferry operator,” but she is worried about the negative consequences that the ferry’s closing will have on hundreds of Loudoun County residents.

“As the Chair of both the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), I am keenly aware of the need to have a variety of viable transportation alternatives in order to maintain a successful regional interconnected system,” she wrote.

Randall added that she has supported adding another Potomac River bridge in the past, but Maryland elected officials have said they are “not interested in even engaging in the conversation.”

“Additionally, I realize and appreciate the historical significance of the crossing at White’s Ferry and understand the concerns raised by many Loudoun citizens. I will address this matter from the dais in early 2021 and I remain committed to continuing efforts to pursue multimodal regional transportation options,” she wrote.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com