Hundreds of Poolesville community members gathered alongside historic White’s Ferry on Thursday afternoon to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the ferry’s closure. Families and business owners carried signs reading, “Don’t let the grinch steal our ferry!”
For over 200 years, White’s Ferry connected Montgomery County’s quiet agricultural up-county with Loudoun County, Virginia’s third-most populous district. It shuttled 600 to 800 vehicles over the Potomac River every day. A legal dispute between the ferry owner and the Virginia landowner led to its closure in December 2020.
Since then, cars have traveled 9 million extra miles due to the ferry’s loss, according to statistics shared by Poolesville Mayor Jim Brown at the rally. In a county that has pledged to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, he emphasized the environmental impact of so much unnecessary road time.
Brown said negotiations between the two private parties to reopen the ferry have been unproductive.
“If you take the 500-foot view, this is about two of the most affluent counties in the country, a river, and two private parties — and we can’t get anyone on the same page,” he said. “Two years is too long.”
He said he hopes the rally raises awareness that the ferry closure is more than just a dispute between landowners.
Over the summer, the county Department of Transportation stepped into the negotiations ring directly to help the parties try to find common ground. But, Brown said it’s been close to five months since the DOT’s initial involvement and so far no timeline or framework has been given for a resolution.
The Virginia property owners initially came to the table with a long list of negotiating points, Brown said, and have made it abundantly clear that they’re not interested in selling the property. He said at this point, their two major sticking points seem to be that they want payment of 50 cents a car per ferry pass, and to ensure that whatever agreement is reached has a tangible length of time attached to it.
Local officials and residents have been outspoken about how negatively the ferry’s loss impacts the community. Poolesville resident Sarah Defnet told Bethesda Beat at the rally that she believes elected officials need to recognize the ferry was a public right-of-way and work quickly to restore ease of transportation over the river.
“Reasonable steps need to be taken,” she said. “There’s just no good alternatives.”
As head of the Poolesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Tom Kettler represents over 150 businesses. He told rallygoers that small businesses have lost an estimated 20% of their revenue due to the ferry’s closure.
“If you think of Poolesville as the heart of the Agricultural Reserve, one of our arteries has been cut off,” he said. “With the loss of the ferry, we’re not getting that blood pumping into the community.”
Chuck Kuhn, the owner of White’s Ferry, told Bethesda Beat in a prepared email statement:
“We share [residents’] interest in getting the Ferry operational and appreciate their ongoing commitment. […] At this point, we await resolution between the Virginia landowners and local governments so we can open for business. We thank the Citizens of Poolesville for adding their voice to helping get White’s Ferry reopened.”
Libby Devlin, owner of Rockland Farm on the Virginia side of the river, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Public push for progress
Volunteers at the rally passed out slips of paper with QR codes that let users send a customizable letter to their elected officials about the ferry.
Newly elected County Council President Evan Glass encouraged attendees to “please continue to advocate” for the ferry’s restoration. As the chair of the Transportation and Environment Committee, he said, “I want you to know we in Montgomery County have been doing everything we can to help mitigate this interstate problem.”
Glass was joined on stage by County Council newcomer Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2), assigned to the same committee. Rally attendees shifted and murmured as Balcombe told them Maryland “doesn’t have the power in this situation” but that she hoped “something will break soon.” She said she’s in talks with Maryland’s governor and lieutenant governor.
Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Dist. 15) echoed Balcombe’s remarks, taking the microphone to tell attendees it’s “very difficult to work when the other side won’t work with you” and adding that Maryland is doing everything possible to “encourage the Virginia side to come to the table.”
Representatives from the offices of Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz, Will Jawando and Laurie-Anne Sayles also attended, as well as Del. Linda Foley (D-Dist. 15) and many Poolesville commissioners and officials.
Pastor Chuck Copeland from Poolesville’s Hosanna Community Church spoke last before Brown led the crowd in a series of chants. Copeland’s daughter and three of his four grandchildren live across the river in Leesburg, and he said the ferry shutdown “completely and totally changed my life.”
Copeland spoke firmly to the politicians in attendance, urging them to act on behalf of the up-county community.
“We don’t want to be a blurb on your website,” he said. “We want you to fix our problem.”
Link Hoewing, president of Poolesville’s Fair Access Committee, told Bethesda Beat he wants to see politicians tackle the issue with a greater sense of urgency.
“We’re not pointing fingers here, but when you think about it, the political system has failed us,” he said. “For two years, no resolution has happened. We’re not resigned to this. We’re not accepting that it won’t happen. We’ve got to have it opened as soon as we can.”
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