Loudoun County, Va., officials have proposed the latest solution to reopening White’s Ferry, more than a year after the transportation link across the Potomac River closed, severing the Montgomery-to-Loudoun connection.
Loudoun County wants to purchase the landing on the Virginia shoreline that is currently part of the estate Rockland Farm, according to its county attorney. But one of Rockland’s owners says no one from the county has approached her yet with an offer.
White’s Ferry closed at the end of 2020 due to an ongoing legal dispute between the ferry operator and the owners of Rockland.
Rockland claimed in a lawsuit that the White’s Ferry owners violated a 1952 agreement by replacing a retaining wall in 2004. Rockland claimed the wall was on its property, but the ferry’s owners argued it was part of the public right-of-way.
In February 2021, JK Moving Services owner Chuck Kuhn purchased the ferry with the hope of restarting service as soon as possible.
Kuhn has said on multiple occasions since August that he has tried to work with the Rockland owners, but that the parties have reached an impasse and attempts at negotiations appear to be exhausted.
Rockland part-owner Libby Devlin has said Rockland has approached Kuhn with multiple offers that he has rejected.
In November, Montgomery and Loudoun counties released a joint study that laid out various scenarios for reopening the ferry. Those include the “restart” option, requiring a solution to the Virginia landing dispute, as well as the “restore and “enhance” service options, which would entail short and long-term infrastructure improvements.
Since December, Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers has been communicating with Rockland Farm’s attorney, Jeff Huber, about possibly purchasing the landing, Rogers told Bethesda Beat on Monday.
Rogers said the goal in buying the landing would be to restart the ferry and make transportation improvements to nearby U.S. 15, expanding the landing’s right-of-way and access road, and creating a path for bicyclers and walkers.
“The owners of Rockland Farm could get more than just selling a landing to White’s Ferry. So, we’re trying to take that approach to the owners of Rockland Farm,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he and Huber have been talking since December, but they have not set up a meeting.
“They’re requesting certain documentation that we either don’t have or we’re not going to go out and acquire. … I can’t tell you much more than that. … So, we are speaking to Rockland’s attorney. It is somewhat sporadic,” he said.
Huber, reached by email on Tuesday, asked a Bethesda Beat reporter what he had heard about the proposal but did not respond to questions about where the talks stood with Loudoun County.
Devlin told Bethesda Beat in an interview Monday that no one from Loudoun County has contacted her about buying the landing, and that she only read of the plan recently in The Monocacy Monocle, a newspaper that covers parts of Montgomery and Frederick counties.
“It would be strange to me that they would even offer such a thing since we had already offered to give both Loudoun County and Montgomery County a free permanent easement on our landing, and neither has responded,” she said. “So, I don’t know why they would want to purchase our landing at taxpayers’ expense when we have already offered it for free.”
Devlin said Rockland has proposed various offers to Kuhn, which include him compensating Rockland for use of the ferry on a monthly or quarterly basis or by traffic volume, or entering binding arbitration with a neutral third party.
He has turned each offer down, she said.
“We don’t know what more we can do from our end. We’ve put various things on the table, and it remains out there. But nobody’s taken us up on anything,” she said.
Rogers said the current discussion about the proposal to buy the landing is occurring between him and Rockland’s attorney, but the property owners haven’t been part of the conversation.
For several months, Kuhn has said he thought eminent domain was likely the only remaining option for resolving the Virginia landing dispute.
On Monday, Rogers emphasized that the current proposal is not a step toward eminent domain, but rather a “step to amicably work things out with the landowner.”
“This would not be eminent domain,” he said. “A decision for eminent domain must go to the Board [of Supervisors]. They have to authorize it. We have to have a public hearing. We have to provide notices, finalized appraisals, and send all that information to the property owner. That has not been done. The board has not held the public hearing.
Montgomery County Council Member Andrew Friedson, whose district includes Poolesville and other upcounty areas that rely on the ferry, told Bethesda Beat on Monday that he’s aware of the latest proposal, and remains hopeful that things are moving in a positive direction.
“Ultimately, Montgomery County is not in a position to directly purchase property outside its jurisdiction. But we can work with Loudoun County, as we have to be a constructive partner and to do what is needed in order to facilitate a solution to this challenge,” he said.
Friedson said the study published last year reminded people how vital of a transportation link the ferry is.
“I think that the study reinforced what all of us know in Montgomery County of how important White’s Ferry is to the regional connectivity and mobility as a critical transportation link across the Potomac River,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com