The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday urged the parties involved in a dispute over the future of the Potomac River ferry that runs between Loudoun and Montgomery County in Maryland to consider finding a way to reopen the ferry service and avoid government intervention.

The supervisors’ exhortation came during a meeting during which they were presented with a report compiled by an outside consultant commissioned to examine the economic impact of the closure of White’s Ferry.

One supervisor offered a mediator’s services for the two parties following a presentation that provided data and outlined actionable information for county officials to consider for the short-and-long term.

GC White's Ferry Closed 3.jpg

Takeaways from the meeting

The board’s sentiments about the next step were reflected with members of the public that spoke about the ferry.

Speakers said they wish to see White’s Ferry return to operation including leaders from Montgomery County. A majority of the speakers in the board room spoke against using eminent domain as a solution, which would give control of the landing to the county and allow the ferry to resume operations.

Rockland Farm LLC, the owners of the Virginia landing, have been vocal in their opposition to the use of eminent domain.

Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said if both parties could not come to an agreement in a reasonable amount of time, he would support eminent domain.

“I believe it’s critical, and I believe we need to reopen this regionally important pathway for the public,” Buffington said.

Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said the county is working to support commuters by taking up a “very expensive” project to widen Route 15 which connects Loudoun to Frederick County, Maryland, and is the next closest river crossing. He said Maryland can also contribute by working with the county to create a bridge over the Potomac River.

“That’s where the conversation should be,” Letourneau said.

“It should be with the elected officials of Maryland and those folks should make their views known — many of whom we may have heard from in the course of this discussion — about real transportation solutions between Virginia [and] Maryland across the Potomac, and the opportunities that would exist for both jurisdictions if we did this a smart way,” he said.

Vice Chairman Koran Saines (D-Sterling) agreed, stating “with all due respect to our colleagues across the river in Montgomery County, there’s so much interest in this ferry, but [they are] unwilling to tackle the bigger challenge, which we all know [what] is needed is a new bridge.”

Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg) joined Letourneau in requesting information about weekend trips separated by business and tourism purposes.

Background

White’s Ferry, the ferry system, has been shut down for close to a year after a broken ferry cable forced its closure and a Virginia Circuit Court opinion in a private lawsuit over the use of private land for the ferry landing in Virginia.

Since that time the owners of the ferry system and the Virginia landing have been at odds over the operation moving forward.

Loudoun and Montgomery Counties entered a joint agreement to study the ferry that connects the two localities across the Potomac. The report is 137 pages.

The study, of which both counties contributed to funding, will provide an evaluation of land ownership and acquisition scenarios for the Virginia landing, as well as short- and long-term possibilities for resuming the ferry service.

The ferry has alleviated some of the congestion on Route 15, which sees about 26,000 to 27,000 cars per day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin), who represents the area that includes the Virginia landing.

Caleb Kershner

Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin) speaks during a Nov. 12 Loudoun County Board of Supervisors business meeting.

He added that Route 15 was only engineered to handle approximately 12,000 cars per day.

White’s Ferry transported approximately 600 to 800 vehicles per day across the river and connected bicyclists and pedestrians between the two counties prior to closing, a Nov. 16 release states.

Takeaways from the study

The study says restarting the ferry service would require minimal low-cost actions in the short term, according to the release. Actions include inspecting the existing vessel to confirm its seaworthiness, hiring staff and restringing the ferry cable.

In the long term, the release states that changes in infrastructure, including improvements in staffing roadways enhancements to support queuing vehicles, fare collection, lighting, and vessel capacity could be considered to improve the system’s capacity.

Restoring the Ferry service is estimated to save over $1 million in travel time costs in 2023 and over $1.7 million per year in travel time savings by 2040 for drivers, the study reads. The change in vehicles miles traveled with the restoration of the Ferry service will also result in lower auto emissions rates to the region.

Fiscal impact

The study did not recommend a preferred path towards resolving the relationship between the owners of the ferry and landing. However, a successful resolution does remain a hurdle to restarting the ferry service.

Depending on the ultimate operator/land ownership scenario chosen, there could be additional fiscal impacts to the counties in the form of property acquisition costs, if needed, and long-term capital improvements associated with the landings on both sides of the river, according to a Nov. 16 staff report.

A restored ferry service that is publicly owned and privately operated would be close to a break-even operation, the report states. Capital expenditures for the first five years of operation would average around $50,000 per year. It is not anticipated that any public capital costs would be realized for restoration of service unless a public property acquisition scenario is pursued.

Additionally, county staff said the study showed that a restored ferry service publicly owned and operated would require a public subsidy of close to $3 million per year.

What Maryland speakers are saying

Town of Poolesville Commission President Kerri Cook: “We are all in this together earnestly. Though we are definitely frustrated by the situation, we do also applaud the process … and we sincerely hope that this study will give you the supervisors the confidence necessary to make some decisions to take some action and set open the ferry for all of our neighbors.”

Fair Access Committee for Western County Chairperson Link Hoewing: “We’re laser focused on we’ve got to get this thing open. It’s our Main Street in Poolesville. Without it, we don’t have the kind of Main Street that most towns have, so we’ve got to find some way to get that done. We didn’t focus on the specific mechanism — that wasn’t our point — our point is there’s got to be a solution in the short term and all these other things have to be done too, and we can look at those down the road once we get the ferry opened again.”

What the land and ferry owners are saying

Libby Devlin

Libby Devlin, manager of Rockland Farm LLC, which owns the landing on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, addresses the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors at a Nov. 16 business meeting.

Rockland Farm LLC — which owns the land where the ferry lands on the Virginia side — manager Libby Devlin: “We have put at least six offers on the table that would accomplish this goal and get the ferry restarted without costing taxpayers any more money. The ferry should continue as it has been — a private arrangement. However, Rockland Farm deserves to receive fair payment for the uses of Rockland’s landing, just as the new ferry owner should be compensated for the use of the Maryland landing if the shoe were on the other foot.”

Stacy Kuhn, Chuck Kuhn

Chuck Kuhn, founder and CEO of JK Moving Services, and his wife, Stacy, listen to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors during a Nov. 16 business meeting.

White’s Ferry co-owner Chuck Kuhn on opposition to eminent domain: “If the owners of Rockland farm are not going to be reasonable and finding an amount to lease the shoreline or sell the shoreline, there’s nothing else we can do. Either the county will step in and assist or the ferry will not reopen. It was important to us to do our best to get the ferry reopen, but we only can do what we can do.”

What Loudoun supervisors are saying

Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large): “We should get a professional mediator and get everyone in the room. We will offer our room upstairs as neutral ground and have them try to work it out. That’s what needs to happen.”

Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin): “It’s a historic ferry and it is my desire, ultimately, to get this ferry up and running. What’s the best way to do that, what is the lawful way, what is the fairest way is still up for debate and still up for decision making. I am fully committed to doing that, but I continue to believe there is a private solution.”

What’s next

Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers told the Times-Mirror that his office is reviewing all of the options for the board. No timetable has been setThe Montgomery County Department of Transportation will host a virtual public meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 17, to present an overview of the study and to answer related questions.

Residents can register to participate in the virtual meeting by visiting MCDOT online. (Click here)(tncms-asset)dce819c6-4739-11ec-8879-8757abf37f73[4](/tncms-asset)

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(4) comments

jke

Could it be Randall thinks the name is racist and will do a quick take so she can waste more money changing names of fairies?

jke

Did Buffington really receive a republican endorsement, yikes what a stool!

Mencken's View

County attorney Leo Rogers says publicly that the county is considering all options, but he's already ordered county staff to stake Rockland property for seizure through eminent domain. This is yet another instance of county staff decieving the public and supervisors about what's going on. Who is running this county?

Ellie Lockwood

….hmm, perhaps it’s the staff, lobbying for union representation!

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