2021 | Transportation

With no resolution in sight, Montgomery, Loudoun officials say White’s Ferry essential

Loudoun board chair reluctant for government to intervene

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Photo by Dan Schere

Amidst an ongoing stalemate between the owners of White’s Ferry and landing on the Virginia shoreline, Montgomery and Loudoun County officials are urging a resolution as a matter of practical necessity. But the answer to the conflict remains unclear.

White’s Ferry, which has connected Montgomery and Loudoun counties since the 1700s, closed in December 2020 after a Loudoun County judge ruled in a lawsuit that the ferry could no longer land on the Virginia side.

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit in which the owner of Rockland Farm, where the landing is, claimed that White’s Ferry violated a 1952 agreement by replacing a retaining wall in 2004. Rockland Farm’s owner said the wall was on its property, while the ferry’s owners argued that it was part of the public right-of-way.

The new owner of the ferry, Chuck Kuhn, and Rockland have negotiated for several months, but have not reached an agreement. Kuhn has pushed for eminent domain, the taking of private land for a public use, but that approach has been rejected by Rockland owner Libby Devlin.

Loudoun County officials have not taken a firm stance on whether to get involved, Loudoun Now reported Tuesday.

Last week, Montgomery and Loudoun counties released a study they jointly commissioned examining various options for getting the ferry back in service and making infrastructure improvements. The report does not specify which option should be followed.

Among the findings of the study were that the trip across the Potomac from Leesburg, Va. to Poolesville increased from 24.7 miles with the ferry to 41.7 miles without it, according to Kyle Lukacs, a planning specialist with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Montgomery County officials emphasized during a virtual forum Wednesday night that White’s Ferry is a “vital transportation” link across the Potomac River.

Lukacs said during the forum on Wednesday that in 2019, the trip eastbound increases by eight minutes from with the ferry to without the ferry (58.5 minutes to 67.3 minutes). Projections into 2040 show that the eastbound trip would be 11 minutes longer without the ferry than with the ferry (76.1 minutes without, up from 65 minutes with).

Included in the time it takes to travel from Poolesville to Leesburg with the ferry is 15 minutes not spent driving that is spent traveling on the ferry, Lukacs said.

Lukacs added that the time estimates will vary depending on where ferry travelers live.

“Our estimates were for all ferry users. So, if, for example, you live closer to Point of Rocks, the impact of the ferry closing is gonna be a little bit less than if you live further south of Leesburg,” he said.

Lukacs said the ferry, benefits area wineries, bed and breakfasts, and historic sites. Without it, about $6 million in trips not taken is lost annually, he said.

Chris Arndt commented in the Zoom chat during Wednesday’s meeting that he used to attend Washington Spirit soccer games when the team played at its games in Germantown. The team has since started playing in Leesburg, which is less convenient for him without the ferry.

“Even though the Spirit is now playing for the championship, I have yet to get to a game,” he wrote in the chat. “Simply put, the drive without White’s Ferry is not worth it. It is too long and stressful. So, there has been a real cost due to the closure of the ferry of trips not taken that would have definitely benefited Loudoun County and the Spirit organization.” (The Spirit won its league championship on Saturday.)

A Washington Spirit spokesperson did not respond to a question from Bethesda Beat Thursday about the whether it has a position on White’s Ferry.

Hannah Henn, the transportation department’s deputy director for transportation policy, said Wednesday that County Executive Marc Elrich told the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that people are having a hard time making trips between the two counties for recreational reasons.

“We now have solid information to help elected officials understand that this is really a public transportation connection,” she said.

Sherwin Wells, a Montgomery County resident, asked during the meeting whether it would be more effective to construct another bridge over the Potomac instead of focusing on the ferry.

State Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-District 15), responded by saying that a bridge would take at least a decade to get built, and the transportation need is more immediate.

“We need to get people back and forth on that ferry as soon as possible. So even having a conversation about a bridge is probably a 15- to 20-year endeavor,” he said.

It remains unclear how or when the dispute over the ferry will be resolved.

Kuhn told Bethesda Beat last week that he thinks eminent domain through government intervention is the only way to restart the ferry.

But Devlin said in a statement to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that she attended the Loudoun County meeting on Tuesday and came away with a different impression.

“At the Loudoun meeting, we saw that most board members and many Loudoun County citizens much prefer that the parties resolve the issue privately without resorting to eminent domain,” she said in the statement.

“Rockland has been asking to work out a private solution all along, but negotiations require two sides. Unfortunately, the prospect of using eminent domain to take our landing rather than paying a fair fee for its use has created a disincentive for White’s Ferry to sit down with us. We hope that following the meetings this week, White’s Ferry may reevaluate its position and enter into talks with us to get the Ferry open again.”

Devlin added that Rockland is also willing to enter binding arbitration with White’s Ferry and have a third-party mediator get involved in settling the dispute.

Phyllis Randall, the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that she personally doesn’t want to take eminent domain off the table, but is “not ready to take that action at this time.”

“At its base this is a matter between two private parties. I am reluctant to have the government intervene,” she wrote.

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