Historic White's Ferry closes operations indefinitely

A rush hour crowd exits on the Virginia side of White’s Ferry in 2003.

The former owner of White’s Ferry says the owners of the Virginia landing along the Potomac River need to come forward with a reasonable proposal for an easement to reopen the ferry, otherwise the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors should consider taking control of the landing.

Herb Brown, whose family has owned the ferry dating back to 1946, broke his silence on the issue, submitting a letter to the board outlining his explanation of events that culminated in an impasse before it was sold to current owners Chuck and Stacy Kuhn.

“Our only goal is to see that boat operating again,” Brown said to the Times-Mirror. “Even though I’ve sold it, I’m doing everything that I can to get that boat opened.”

As previously reported, the Kuhns said they believe that further negotiations between them and the owners of the Virginia landing at Rockland Farm will ultimately prove fruitless as the parties have become deadlocked in their discussions to reopen the vessel service across the Potomac River.

The remarks followed a public presentation of the Potomac River ferry study — jointly funded by Loudoun and Montgomery (Maryland) Counties.

Supervisors urged the owners to reach an agreement on reopening the service before the board considers further options for the popular ferry service. The closing has impacted commuters, but also businesses on both sides of the Potomac since it was closed December 2020.

The ferry system has been shut down for close to a year following the breaking of the ferry’s cable and a Virginia Circuit Court opinion in a private lawsuit over the use of private land for the ferry landing in Virginia.

Brown said the cost of replacing the cable is approximately $8,000, double what it cost in 2010.

The new owners of White’s Ferry are seeking to have county and state leaders exercise eminent domain, which would give control of the landing to the respective governments.

Rockland Farm, which owns the Virginia landing, has been vocal in their opposition the idea.

The Kuhns said Rockland Farm’s repeated demands for $2 million for the parcel of land that constitutes the landing site, or 50 cents per car each way, along with what the Kuhns said were unacceptable terms made negotiations impossible.

White's Ferry

The owners of a farm that encompasses the White’s Ferry landing on the Virginia side of the river painted the fee they said they want to be paid per vehicle in order to allow the ferry service to resume operating.

Devlin, who said Brown’s letter contains misinformation and several inaccuracies, reiterated her proposal to include an arbitrator in the discussions.

“The bottom line is that if Chuck Kuhn and Herb Brown truly believe that I am being unfair in my ask for $0.50/vehicle to use of Rockland’s landing, why don’t they take me up on my offer for binding arbitration,” Devlin said in an email to the Times-Mirror. “That way a neutral third party can decide what is most fair.”

Devlin did not immediately elaborate on her claim that Brown’s letter contained inaccuracies.

Brown said the ferry operation wouldn’t be viable under Rockland’s terms. He said the cost to replace the ferry would cost the same amount to purchase the landing.

Since the ferry closed, the previous owners also had to reimburse more than 400 customers for their commuter ferry passes, each roundtrip pass costing $4.

“Based on Libby’s demands and Peter’s [Brown] demands, they are never going to come to a resolution,” he said. “The ferry very can’t afford what she’s requesting.”

He said the ferry operation is a tough business, and the cost of ferry cables, machinery and employees have driven up the costs. Further, he said the revenue claims made by Libby Devlin, manager of Rockland Farm LLC, are also incorrect.

Brown said Devlin reported that the Ferry was netting $750,000 a year, however the 75-year-old White’s Ferry corporation’s earnings came from several sources. He said a majority of White’s Ferry Inc.’s revenue came from sources other than the ferry.

Brown said White’s Ferry Inc. had reserves invested to replace the boat when needed, income from the store, rental of the picnic area, boat rentals and income from outside investments.

“The money just isn’t there,” Brown said.

“With people working from home, the traffic isn’t there like it used to be,” he said. “And that’s what happened to us in 2020, ridership was off by about a third.”

In a Nov. 19 release, the ferry owners for the first time outlined their offers to Rockland Farm in exchange for leasing and/or purchasing the landing site.

The Kuhns offered $13.5 million for the farm, which Rockland Farm in turn made no counter offer and ultimately rejected.

Further, the Kuhns proposed to donate the ferry and the landings to the respective governments.

The owners of Rockland Farm proposed several options for ending the dispute, including with a monthly or annual transit fee per vehicle with a long-term lease; having the vehicle count maintained by a neutral third party; or negotiating a transit fee independent of vehicle count.

The farm’s entreaties, however, were rejected. Devlin said the owners of the farm asked for 50 cents for every vehicle that transits the farm’s landing along the Potomac River as part of a deal to reopen White’s Ferry.

Devlin said Rockland Farm made a similar offer to Loudoun and/or Montgomery counties in August, but the county has not decided on any option it’s received.

Devlin said Rockland also offered to purchase the ferry at the price Chuck Kuhn paid for it.

She said she was surprised when the Kuhns entered into contract to take ownership of the ferry in February after the farm’s owners were in negotiations to purchase the ferry for $3 million.

The terms of the sale were not disclosed, according to a previous Times-Mirror report.

As for Rockland’s offer, she believed the 50-cent per vehicle request to be reasonable given her understanding of the operation’s earnings.

She said a stream of income for the landing would help support Rockland’s operations.

Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers told the Times-Mirror last week that his office is reviewing all of the options for the board. No timetable has been set.

(1) comment

Mencken's View

Herb Brown sold the Ferry property. But the sale of the business itself does not seem to have been recorded. Maybe Herb actually still owns the ferry business, and that is why he's speaking up here? Mr. Cline, have you verified its sale? Previously, Mr. Kuhn claimed last winter he'd purchased the ferry, got his picture in the paper, but the sale wasn't actually recorded until 6 months later. In addition, there is a telling chronology issue with Mr. Kuhn's published statement. He says he tried to purchase the Rockland family farm (in the same family for 200 years, and not merely an item in one Rockland sibling's "portfolio," as Kuhn portrays it), as a way to reopen the ferry. In fact, he offered to buy the ancestral family home and farm before the ferry closed, and when the family refused, he then used their honorable disclosure of the ferry issue to his advantage--scuttling the family's negotiation efforts to reach a settlement with or buy the ferry from Herb Brown. Rich guys don't get to be rich guys by being nice guys. Also, If Herb Brown really had wanted to open the ferry after the cable broke and after a judge convicted him of trespassing and violating the decades old agreement with the ferry owners, he could easily have done so. Instead, he refused every single offer to negotiate with Rockland owners, publicly blaming them for its closure (and conveniently not mentioning the broken cable). As for ferry profits, it has been a cash business, and what its true profits are are therefore...a bit speculative. The ferry it study notes this rather glaring lack of data.

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