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Easement dispute keeps White’s Ferry landing closed

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VPM News Focal Point
White’s Ferry sits unused on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

The ferry began running between Virginia and Maryland during the 1700s.

Amy Fleishman lives in Poolesville, Maryland — just across the Potomac River from Loudoun County.

She previously enjoyed shopping and grabbing a bite to eat in Leesburg, activities within reach by using White’s Ferry. But that ended about four years ago when the owners of the Virginia-side landing filed suit over use of the site.

“We were horrified because we used the ferry quite often," she said.

She can still drive over the Point of Rocks Bridge to get to the commonwealth, but it takes about 45 minutes longer than the ferry.

“So, we just don’t go to Virginia,” Fleishman said.

What started out as a trespassing dispute in 2004 led to a court battle that’s lasted more than a decade. Failed negotiations ensued, and for years some area residents have called for Loudoun County to exercise the power of eminent domain to get the ferry running again.

Owners of the ferry — which traveled between Maryland’s Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and Rockland Farm in Virginia — said that last month, they again unsuccessfully attempted to reach a deal with the farm owners.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation — it ended up being a battle,” said Chuck Kuhn, who runs the company that currently owns the ferry. The battle, Kuhn said, involves “a small detail over the easement for the Virginia landing.”

The ferry connecting Montgomery County, Maryland, and Loudoun started operating in the late 1700s. An agreement between the then-ferry owners and the owners of Rockland Farm was signed in 1952.

In 2004, the Rockland Farm owners accused the previous ferry operators — led by Herb Brown — of overstepping the agreement by expanding the landing without first obtaining their prior approval.

“They violated the license agreement by bulldozing a huge swath of land,” said Libby Devlin, a co-owner of Rockland Farm.

In addition, she said, the ferry company attempted to add “electric power, lights, all these things.”

In a 2020 court decision, Judge Stephen Sincavage ruled in favor of the farm’s owners and found that Rockland could cancel the agreement — ostensibly shutting down the ferry.

Sincavage found that although Loudoun did give land to a ferry company to use as a landing in 1871, the exact location of that parcel was imprecise due to unclear maps.

Kuhn bought the ferry in 2021 and unsuccessfully tried to reach an arrangement with Rockland. He said he offered to buy the landing site, but the owners declined. Instead, they want to collect a per-car fee in exchange for allowing the ferry to operate again.

“All we’re asking for is 50 cents a car. There are many variations of that,” Devlin said while discussing terms of a potential agreement.

Kuhn said the farm wants to charge him more than the ferry takes in profit each year, and in a potential agreement wanted to include a stipulation saying the farm can decide to stop service at any point without notice.

“They want a fee per car where the rates would go up to the point where people would not be able to use the ferry,” Kuhn said.

In 2020 — the last year the ferry ran — the cost of crossing the river was $5 per car.

Kuhn said that if Montgomery County would agree to run the ferry itself, he would donate the boat to the locality.

A sticking point is obtaining landing permissions on the Loudoun side.

“We just want a solution,” said Link Hoewing, chairperson of the Poolesville, Maryland, Fair Access Committee. Hoewing said eminent domain is not necessarily the only solution, but it is a viable one. “If eminent domain happens, and we get the ferry back, that’s great,” he said.

The Poolesville community — with a population of about 5,000 people — is about an hour outside of Washington, D.C. It’s surrounded by an agricultural reserve and, because of the ferry, previously enjoyed access to Virginia’s amenities.

Some residents worry that building a new bridge in the area would create traffic issues and spur unwanted development.

“When the ferry closed, we saw a 20% drop in our business,” Hoewing said. “People just aren’t coming here anymore.”

He continued: “What I can’t understand is that neither party seems to me to really look at the public interest. It’s two private parties, but it’s not a private service. It's a public service.”

Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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