STERLING, Va. (March 29, 2023) — A new chapter has opened in the years-long saga over reopening White’s Ferry, the privately owned operation north of Leesburg which closed in late 2020 after a 16-year legal dispute. The ferry’s current owner, real estate investor Chuck Kuhn, now wants to sell the operation to Montgomery County, Maryland, in hopes that it will lead to the resumption of service. The announcement came as Kuhn and Rockland Farm, which owns the Potomac River frontage where the ferry operated on the Virginia side, continued to trade barbs over who is at fault for the ongoing closure.
Kuhn purchased the ferry in 2021, stating that he took over the operation so that he could find a way to get it back up and running. The previous owner, Herbert O. Brown, made the sale after he lost a lawsuit filed by the Rockland Farm owners that claimed that the ferry had no legal right-of-way to the river. The ferry company, now controlled by Kuhn, owns land on the Virginia side near the landing site, but the river access itself is located on a small portion of the 486-acre Rockland Farm property.
Since then, Kuhn and the family that owns Rockland Farm have bickered publicly about who is to blame for the failure to come to an agreement.
Most recently, Rockland Farm owners rejected a $1.1 million offer — funded in part by public money from Loudoun and Montgomery counties — to purchase the 1.4-acre sliver of land that would give the ferry unfettered access to the river, according to a March 27 press release from a public relations firm representing Kuhn.
Kuhn said that the family who owns the farm is being unreasonable. “Sadly, one entity—one family—refuses to be part of the solution and is hurting real people and our local communities,” Kuhn said, according to the press release. Kuhn hopes that Montgomery County will take over the operation and use eminent domain to force Rockland Farm to give up the right of way, the press release said.
Libby Devlin, who has spoken on behalf of the Rockland Farm owners in the past, did not respond immediately to a request for comment from the Times-Mirror. But she and others in her family have insisted previously that they are eager to come to an agreement that would see the ferry reopened — even stating that the family is willing to purchase the entire operation.
If Kuhn or another owner continues to control the ferry, Devlin has said that the family is not willing to sell any part of the property outright but is willing to allow access to the landing site for a per-use fee. For instance, late last year the family proposed several options, including a proposal that would allow the ferry access to the landing site in exchange for 50 cents for each vehicle that used the ferry.
“We only ask for just compensation for the ferry traffic that will traverse our land,” Devlin told the Times-Mirror in January.
Kuhn has lambasted those offers, arguing that the business would become untenable if Rockland Farm continued to own the landing site. “We needed an agreement that we could build a business model around. Owning landing rights would enable us to understand and manage ferry costs so that we could offer the best product at a price the users can afford,” Kuhn’s March 27 press release said.
Loudoun County committed up to $200,000 in the most recent offer to purchase a small corner of Rockland Farm, according to county government spokesperson Glen Barbour.
Had that offer been accepted, “the county would initiate action to add the landing to the secondary road system,” Barbour wrote in an email. “The Secondary Road System remains under the fee simple ownership of the county, while it is placed in the state (VDOT) system for maintenance. Currently, the area under state maintenance ends approximately 200 feet short of the waterline.”
Barbour said that Loudoun County is not willing to pursue eminent domain on the property.
An inquiry from the Times-Mirror to Montgomery County’s public information office was not answered by press time
White’s Ferry, named after a former Confederate army officer who took over the operation after the Civil War, was once one of about 100 ferries that operated on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland. A ferry has operated on the current site since 1786; before it closed in 2020, it was the last operational ferry on the Potomac. The ferry charged $5 per vehicle — or $8 round-trip — and charged cyclists $2 and pedestrians $1.
The ferry’s closure in December 2020 prompted angst from local residents, especially Poolesville, Mayland-area business owners who say they are suffering financially because fewer people from the Virginia side of the river are visiting their town and the surrounding rural area.
Leesburg and Poolesville are less than 9 miles apart in a straight line and it took about 11 miles of driving to get from one town to the other while the ferry was operating. Now, traveling between the two towns is a 26-mile drive via the Route 15 bridge at Point of Rocks, Maryland.
Determining how many people used the ferry — and why — is an inexact science, since the former owner of the ferry did not keep track of how many people used the service. And since the ferry closed during the pandemic, when commuter traffic dropped significantly, it is even more difficult to determine what effect the ferry closure may have on demand for the Point of Rocks bridge, which is subject to frequent backups.
Loudoun and Montgomery counties paid for a study to address those questions. The 140-page report, released in October 2021, estimated that between 1,100 and 1,600 vehicles used the ferry on an average day, though demand fluctuated depending on the time of year. The study found that the ferry was likely much more popular with people traveling for recreational purposes than it was with commuters. Demand on Saturdays was about 50% higher than demand on a typical weekday, for instance.
Roughly 80% of the vehicle traffic between the Leesburg area and the Poolesville area used the ferry instead of driving to Point of Rocks. For those drivers, the ferry’s closure increased travel times between Leesburg and Poolesville by an average of 17%, according to the study, and trip times now range from about 40 minutes to more than an hour depending on traffic. The study also expressed concern that the ferry’s closure will add to the existing congestion issues at Point of Rocks.
More than 22,000 vehicles each day crossed the Point of Rocks bridge in 2019, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation, though usage fell significantly during the pandemic and has yet to rebound to pre-2020 levels.
The 2021 study determined who used the ferry did not venture very far from the ferry site after crossing the river; most people traveling from the Maryland side were headed to a destination in or around Leesburg, and most people using the ferry from the Virginia side were traveling to the Poolesville area.