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Montgomery, Loudoun counties launch study to reopen White’s Ferry

A ferry makes its way to the Montgomery County side of the Potomac River at dusk in March 2020.
A ferry makes its way to the Montgomery County side of the Potomac River at dusk in March 2020. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Counties in Maryland and Virginia said this week they will work together to reopen a shuttered Potomac River ferry service. The Virginia landowner whose property the ferry service needs to operate, however, urged her local government not to take her land.

White’s Ferry was a commuter link between Montgomery County, Md., and Loudoun County, Va., that carried travelers starting in the 18th century. The ferry closed amid community outcry in December after the owners of Rockland Farm, on the Virginia side, won a years-long legal dispute with the ferry’s owner, successfully arguing the service trespassed on its land.

The end of the ferry service, which carried up to 800 vehicles per day as well as bicyclists and pedestrians, forced commuters onto rural roads often clogged with traffic.

White’s Ferry reopening delayed up to 10 months over 50-cent fee dispute

In a statement Thursday, Loudoun County said it would work with Montgomery County to study the ferry operation and evaluate “land ownership and acquisition scenarios for the Virginia landing.” The study will be completed within 90 days and “include options for restoring service,” the statement said.

Montgomery County officials said in a statement that the “two counties share a common goal of reestablishing daily ferry service.”

“Restoring the operation of a Potomac River Ferry between Montgomery County and Loudoun County as soon as possible is critically important to reducing travel times to and from Virginia for many of our residents,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said in a statement. “Plus, the ferry ride is just plain fun.”

Rockland Farm owner Libby Devlin, whose family has owned the property since the 1800s, said in an email that Loudoun should avoid taking her land to restore the service.

Devlin said she would grant the county a free permanent easement for a 50-cent fee on each vehicle that uses the ferry. This solution was floated in negotiations with Chuck Kuhn, the chief executive of JK Moving, who bought the ferry from its longtime owner in February.

Those negotiations ended earlier this month after he said he would not pay the fee, Devlin said. She said condemning and seizing private property because Kuhn will not pay the fee is “bad public policy.”

“As owners of Rockland Farm, we feel there are many ways to resolve this matter without resorting to a taking of our land and are hopeful that Loudoun County will study these other options in more depth,” Devlin said.

With new owner, beloved White’s Ferry has a chance of reopening

In a statement, Kuhn said he was pleased the two counties are working together.

“We were unable to come to reasonable terms and price for the Virginia landing,” the statement said. “We had hoped to find a resolution that worked for all parties, but now it will be up to the local and state governments as they explore acquiring the land through eminent domain.”

Christopher Conklin, director of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, said the two counties want a solution that would restore the service independent of the “whims on either side” of the private dispute. Options include finding an alternative landing or taking the Rockland property through eminent domain, he said.

He noted that Montgomery does not have the power of eminent domain, because the property is in Loudoun, and said taking property is not an optimal solution.

“We always try to reach an amicably negotiated solution with an owner before exercising powers under eminent domain,” he said.

With White’s Ferry gone, there is no Potomac crossing between the Point of Rocks and American Legion bridges — a span of about 35 miles. White’s Ferry was the last of the more than 100 ferries that used to cross the river.