In 2003, Hurricane Isabel destroyed a wooden wall on the Virginia landing. Ed Brown, my father and the previous owner of White’s Ferry, replaced it with a concrete retaining wall, believing it was within the public right-of-way.
Rockland Farm disputed the wall placement. A lawsuit was brought by Rockland Farm, and in 2020 a judge ruled there was no public landing in Virginia (despite the 1871 condemnation which formalized a ferry landing on the Virginia shore). The judge ruled that the retaining wall was on their property and awarded them $102,175, which all agreed was the cost to tear it down. This judgement was paid in December of 2020.
For over 200 hundred years, the Ferry had operated at that site since it was considered public land. The only agreement between White’s Ferry and Rockland Farm happened in 1952 and was for a pole and anchor in the nearby pasture to support an overhead cable.
That changed in 2020 with the judgement. Rockland Farm’s owners Peter Brown and his sister Libby Devlin sent us a revocable license agreement demanding $18,000 a month for the use of the landing. At that time, the boat operation was not generating that amount per month. Mrs. Devlin has reported that the Ferry was netting $750,000 a year, however the 75-year-old White’s Ferry corporation’s earnings came from sources in addition to the operation of the ferry, 7 days a week, 18 hours a day. In fact, a majority of White’s Ferry Inc.’s income came from sources other than the boat. The judge understood this distinction in his opinion.
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. When we decided to close, our daily commuters, which were the bulk of our weekday business, were paying $2.62 per trip. Peter Brown and Libby Devlin wanted $1.00 per car (38% of the gross), for these customers.
In a conversation with Peter Brown, he explained why the Maryland Shore should receive 1/3, Virginia shore receive 1/3, and the operator 1/3 of the income. Based on that formula, the operator would not be able to maintain operation costs and would be forced to go bankrupt.
Rockland Farm also offered to purchase the Ferry and its operations. In January 2021, Libby Devlin met with us and reviewed the books on the boat operation and saw that we could not afford what they were asking. We countered the informal offer they made but never heard back.
Instead, we offered Rockland Farm $400,000 for an easement on approximately 7,000 square feet of land and were told it was worth $2,000,000. In addition, they wanted us to sign a license agreement that we received from their attorneys, seven days before closing the ferry operation, stating that the agreement could be cancelled at any time with a 30-day notice. It made no sense to replace the cable and reopen after the flood with the possibility of being closed down after a month.
Now they are trying to get that large amount from Chuck Kuhn, the new owner. My understanding is that he offered more than we did for the easement, but the boat’s business history doesn’t support Rockland Farm’s extraordinary request. The only reason Rockland Farm wants the Ferry re-opened is to have a perpetual annuity to support the Farm from someone else’s labor. It is not for the public, as they claim.
If they want the operation to re-open, they should come forward with a reasonable proposal for an easement so everyone can move forward. No one can operate the Ferry as on ongoing business based on Rockland’s current demands.
Herbert O. Brown
Previous owner, White’s Ferry