White’s Ferry Dispute Moves Closer to Eminent Domain Vote

An overflow crowd gathered at the Poolesville, MD, Town Hall on Wednesday night to highlight the impacts the sudden closing of White’s Ferry has had on life in that rural community for the past eight months

For two centuries, the ferry has provided a connection between Loudoun and Montgomery counties across the Potomac River. The operation came to a halt in December, after the cable guiding the ferry across the river snapped, a Loudoun Circuit Court ruling that the ferry operators lack legal access to the property used for the ferry’s Virginia landing and the ferry owners and landowners were unable to come to terms on a new deal.

Principally, the ferry has been viewed as an important commuter service, carrying 600 to 800 vehicles per day. But in the eight months since operations ceased, residents on the Maryland side have seen heavy economic and tourism impacts, speakers said during the meeting. In town, businesses ranging from restaurants to the hardware story have cited significant ferry-related losses that fell on top of the COVID-caused revenue declines, Poolesville Area Chamber of Commerce Chamber President Tom Kettler said. And residents who had been used to jumping on the ferry for a quick 15-minute trip to shop, work or visit family in Leesburg now face an hour-long drive.

The meeting helped build the foundation about the public necessity of the ferry—an element that will be important if the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors moves to obtain the landing by condemnation. That’s an option being studied by the county staff, with a report to the board expected in October.

The use of eminent domain is adamantly opposed by the family who owns the landing property and is cited as the best option available by the new ferry owners, Chuck and Stacey Kuhn.

Starting 1952, Rockland Farm, home of the Rust family, hosted White’s Ferry’s landing in Virginia for $5 a year. In the 1990s, the ferry owners pushed to expand the landing, which the family declined—then in 2004, the ferry owners bulldozed and expanded the landing anyway. That led to a stop work order and subsequent lawsuit for damages from the county government, and the end of the 1952 lease agreement. But ferry service continued anyway while the owners of Rockland Farm and Whites Ferry owners fought a protracted legal battle, concluding in 2020 when the court ruled Whites Ferry had been trespassing since the new landing was built.

When his family bought the ferry operation in February, Chuck Kuhn said he was optimistic he could bring a fresh approach to the talks with the owners. However, that deal has not materialized and the struggles to come to an agreement have gotten more public, and more bitter.

In August, Libby Devlin, manager of the property and a member of the family that owns Rockland Farm, sent a letter to Kuhn, copied to county supervisors, laying out five offers to get service running again. Many of those were similar to what they offered to the previous owner, ranging from a use fee of 50 cents per vehicle, to a $150,000 a year fee, to a $2 million permanent easement.  They also offered to enter binding arbitration, or to explore buying Whites Ferry from Kuhn for more than what he paid, if he disclosed how much he paid.

Kuhn rejected those options.

Chuck Kuhn speaks during an Aug. 18, 2021, community meeting in Poolesville, MD. [Norman K. Styer/Loudoun Now]

During Wednesday night’s meeting, he was asked by an audience member if a binding arbitration or mediation effort would offer the most expedient path to reopening the ferry, more so than a condemnation lawsuit.

Kuhn said he had exhausted the avenues for negotiation.

“I have zero optimism that continuing to try to negotiate directly—with or without arbitration or mediation—with the Virginia shoreline will be successful in reopening the ferry,” he told the crowd.  “I tried. I do not think it is a good use of the time. I do not think it is a good use of funds. I’ve exhausted my abilities to be successful there—whether it’s been trying to purchase the farm, whether it’ trying to purchase a reasonable landing right with reasonable terms.”

Of the offer of a $2 million easement sale, he said, “if we took that deal, you all wouldn’t use the ferry anyway, because you couldn’t afford it.”

He said, on top of wage increases, increased fuel and insurance cost, and new staffing regulations, fares would quadruple. “Opening a ferry that you can’t afford to utilize isn’t going to help the community,” he said.

Devlin said the family is only looking for a fair deal and has been subject to unfair attacks.

“I hear neighbors from Selma Estates and Raspberry Falls and they talk about us as, like, greedy,” Devlin said. “I don’t know that people realize that Rockland Farm and the Rust family are the same thing.”

She pointed to the family’s contributions to Loudoun over the years—contributions that made things like the Rust Library, Rust Nature Sanctuary and Ida Lee Park possible.

“There’s just so much that the people who have lived at Rockland have contributed,” Devlin. “We also contributed having the ferry land on our property for 16 years for nothing, and before that only $5 a year. And to have the county turn around and condemn it for some businessperson’s profit and use, it just seems really not right and a really bad precedent.”

Rockland Farm’s representatives were not invited to the meeting in Poolesville nor, they say, informed of it. Devlin issued a statement before the meeting saying she was disappointed not have been asked to participate.

“It’s upsetting that the citizens of Montgomery and Loudoun counties have had to suffer without this important regional transportation service due to White’s Ferry’s refusal to work with us to update a nearly 70-year-old contract for the use of our landing,” she stated. “Instead, White’s Ferry has chosen to work behind the scenes, lobbying the government to condemn our private property. The government’s exercise of eminent domain should not be used as a tool for a private enterprise’s financial gain.”

She also wrote that the Town of Poolesville “will give White’s Ferry a platform to deliver only one side of the story. Rockland Farm wants to make it known that we want the Ferry open now and have been making every effort to make that happen in a way that is reasonable and fair to both sides.”

Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) speaks during an Aug. 18, 2021 community meeting about Whites Ferry in Poolesville, MD.

At the Maryland meeting, Loudoun Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said that once the staff’s recommendations are presented in October a vote on whether to proceed with condemnation could be held by December. Condemnation is not the only option being considered, he noted, while encouraging the residents to contact board members and come speak at their meetings in Leesburg to share their views on the ferry.

Kershner also provided an update on Loudoun’s efforts to widen Rt. 15 north of Leesburg to four-lanes to address longstanding safety and congestion problems. That effort and reopening the ferry will help the region in the short-term, he said, but by 2040 Rt. 15 is expected to be over capacity again.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the need, at some point, for a bridge crossing between Maryland and Virginia. If our jurisdictions are truly serious about mitigating congestion, providing solid solutions for our residents we must start discussions between our political entities in this vein. We owe it to our residents on both sides of the river who suffer through this congestion on a regular basis,” Kirshner said.

Kuhn agreed that condemnation was not a foregone conclusion but pledged to have the ferry up and running by next summer.

“If that fails, it is not the only thing we’re relying on. We do have options two, three and four that we’ll move to,” he said.

“I’m not kidding. I’m committed to making sure the ferry opens and I’m not saying that to get the team excited. I’m telling you, one way or the other, this ferry is going to move and it’s going to move before summer of 2022. One way or the other that ferry will be open before summer of 2022. That’s my commitment to Poolesville, to my family, to the Loudoun County community.”

37 thoughts on “White’s Ferry Dispute Moves Closer to Eminent Domain Vote

  • 2021-08-19 at 4:31 pm
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    I don’t think I have ever been to Poolesville, MD. I don’t consider it a tourist spot or a haven for restaurants. And if I did want to go to Poolesville, I’d drive up and cross at Point of Rocks. I’d never take the ferry to get there.

    The ferry is not a necessity. It’s a convenience for a tiny number of people in any given month who have obviously found alternatives to this crossing.

    This ought not involve taking land from one party to grant it to another through coercive government means.

    • 2021-08-19 at 6:04 pm
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      The “Landing” is across the road from the farm and I can’t imagine that improving or rearranging the dirt would have any effect whatsoever to the farm or its operations. There is something we do not know going on here. If the Rockland Farm family is so magnanimous and philanthropic then they need to just go with this and let it go, consider it a donation and take the tax break and the thanks of a grateful public.
      Mr. Kuhn always benefits from anything he does, it’s a fait accompli. The prior owners charged a fee, Chuck will charge a fee. It may be more, but it’s not the 1700’s anymore . He is a very smart businessman so he will do the right thing….
      Poolesville is NOT a hot tourist spot BUT Loudoun IS! Plus the Ferry is cool! I’d definitely spend money to ride there Ferry rather than the God awful roads I’d have to drive to get to either side !
      BUT…again, do we REALLY have the full story!
      P.S. Surprised eminent domain hasn’t already been exercised!

      • 2021-08-19 at 6:22 pm
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        Re Rt 15…4 lanes is a wonderful idea…BUT what do you do at the Bridge!!??
        It’s TWO LANES! 4 does NOT go into 2! At least not well….
        Again, it’s Politics… can’t VA and MD politicians get over themselves and build a decent bridge from this century. You’re telling me that bridge is “safe”! By what standards…
        You can build 12 lanes but then all you get is an even bigger SNAFU then we have now.
        Oh, I know! Let’s throw MORE money at a study!
        Why can’t the Feds get involved in this from a purely common sense approach of growth, safety and 101 other reasons!?
        Oops! My bad! Common sense!
        There HAS to be a way that common sense or perhaps, Logic, can prevail over MD being obstinate and VA being “entitled”!
        Just build the damn thing! If MD thinks more people will drive to earn more money then toll them to get back INTO MD. Then watch them move ….
        Good grief! This area just gets loonier and loonier!

      • 2021-08-20 at 12:32 pm
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        Sure, but it is their land. So they should be compensated. I think the other side is being greedy.

      • 2021-11-12 at 8:17 pm
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        So if a businessman comes up and says he’d rather have your property than you owning it, and he gets politicians to back him up, you’re OK with that? You must be a Socialist. I am a blue-dog Democrat and I think that’s an abuse of governmental power and unfair as heck to the rightful property owner. Nobody made Kuhn buy the ferry and no one owes him a thing.

  • 2021-08-19 at 5:30 pm
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    How can we be discussing condemnation (basically stealing) a portion of someone’s family farm? A family with a record of several philanthropic contributions to Loudoun?

    Besides that – build the bridge…far more traffic for Poolesville. For that option, eminent domain could be used legally with *proper and appropriate* compensation to the farm owners.

  • 2021-08-19 at 7:29 pm
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    No. Absolutely not.

    This is a dispute between two property owners.

    End of story.

  • 2021-08-19 at 7:47 pm
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    Can I assume the JK Moving (friend of the LCBS) and Rockland Farm will make a nice pro ffg it at the expense of Loundoun tax payers.

  • 2021-08-19 at 8:17 pm
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    The Rocklands are unbelievably greedy. Trying to demand kickbacks because of their ancestors? How desperate. The sooner that farm goes bankrupt, the better for all involved.

    • 2021-08-20 at 10:15 am
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      VA-SGP,

      I am going to build a private school on your property, collect tuition, and not compensate you a dime, OK? Even better, give me a free easement.

      • 2021-08-21 at 6:33 pm
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        “Really” (Rockland Farm), you are so predictable. You cannot even manage your farm and breakeven. Why don’t you just pack up, go back to New England, and admit you were not capable of making a go of it in Loudoun?

        Your family was compensated for land on the river for a ferry by Loudoun taxpayers. Where is that land? Why don’t we have access to it? Well, we are about TO GET IT. And we will be able to use it for access to White’s Ferry. You will get compensation (that you don’t deserve) at the market price. Im guessing that will be a few $100. Deal with it.

        • 2021-08-23 at 8:51 pm
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          VA SGP,

          How much was Rockland paid in the 1800s? Where is the documentation?

          FOIA the county and you will get the number they are paying for a “study.” My guess it is at least $75,000. Please feel free to write that check.

        • 2021-08-23 at 9:04 pm
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          WRONG!!! (Not Rockland) Why all the hate VA SGP?

          If there was a condemnation already and compensation was paid, it was necessary for the COUNTY to document where the location is and record it. That was not done as the records don’t exist. If you think otherwise, please FOIA the county and share the records with the public/us. We would all like to know where such a landing actually is because trespassing and damaging a person’s private property is illegal. It is exactly why the court told the ferry owner to pay damages. Feel free to pull the final court order or even FOIA the county. I am sure they too have a copy to share with you.

    • 2021-08-20 at 12:30 pm
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      In what world are they greedy? They have a right to their land. Other people can’t just use their land for free. There’s absolutely no reason that they should not be compensated for the use of their land. Would you want people using your land or backyard without your permission? I doubt it.

    • 2021-08-23 at 1:29 am
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      The Family that owns Rocklands gave us temple Hall Farm Park, Ida Lee Park, The Rust Library, and Rust Wildlife Sanctuary. Pretty greedy, eh?

  • 2021-08-20 at 8:54 am
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    How much does a person need to donate to politicians for them to agree to condemn private property so a big donor can use the land for a cash-based business? And, the business owner thinks that paying the private property owner for use of the land ($.50 a buck, Chuck) is somehow excessive.

    In addition, the ferry seems to benefit the Maryland side, not so much Loudoun yet MD says “no” to a bridge.

    This does not pass the smell test.

  • 2021-08-20 at 10:10 am
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    If I owned Rockland Farm, I’d take a backhoe and dynamite to the ferry landing tonight and bulldoze it flat. The river access was taken by easement. The improvements were added against their will. And they have received no money in fifteen years.

      • 2021-08-21 at 1:16 pm
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        Well Kershner is exactly that. But he’s not really the one pushing this. Maybe, maybe I don’t see everything through party glasses like you do.

    • 2021-08-21 at 6:35 pm
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      The Rockland Farm landowners are failures. They cannot even make turn a profit on their own land. They should just leave.

      Loudoun taxpayers paid for access to the river but Rockland won’t even allow Loudoun to use it. Well, they are about to find out what doublecrossers deserve. Eminent domain for transportation in Loudoun will be a beautiful thing. I hope the Loudoun gov’t doesn’t give them more than a few $100 (all it’s worth). Maybe everybody should honk their horn on the way to the ferry to remind those Rocklands how hated they are.

  • 2021-08-20 at 10:22 am
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    I don’t know how the ferry owner thinks arbitration is a bad thing, instead thinks the taxpayer should pay for the studies, condemnation, and the subsequent lengthy and costly litigation. I don’t understand how it will be magically opened “before the summer of 2022” when it was previously promised it would be opened much sooner. Without arbitration, this is over-optimistic or a complete lie. Here, a billionaire wants to run a ferry service and act like the offer to arbitrate is unreasonable.

    • 2021-08-21 at 6:36 pm
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      I will be happy to contribute to studies and condemnation to get access to the river that Rockland was already paid in the 1800s. Hopefully, the Rocklands will learn how hated they are for cutting off access to the ferry and leave Loudoun, for good! And bankrupt at that.

  • 2021-08-20 at 11:33 am
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    Fifty cents a car Chuck!!! That’s all the owners of the land want.

    This family has make many many contributions to the quality of life we enjoy in Leesburg, and unlike Half a Buck Chuck they did it without manipulating conservation tax credits to defer capital gains taxes from successful (some might say unseemly) land deals in the eastern part of the county.

    For Chuck Kuhn to now embark on a campaign to cut this family out and take their land though his connections in local government perhaps speaks to Chuck’s true colors- green.

    Shame on Chuck, and shame on Supervisor Kushner for enabling this folly (should I be surprised that those in a party that pounds the table over property rights, the free market, and freedom, should I be surprised that they carry the water for the well connected when they want to steal and profit from others?)

  • 2021-08-20 at 12:28 pm
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    It seems completely reasonable that the property owners on the Virginia side should be compensated for the use of their land. I don’t understand why the ferry owner won’t agree to a per car fee being paid to the owners on the opposite side. Makes complete sense to me! Are they just being difficult on the Maryland side? That they didn’t even invite the Virginia side owners to their meeting raises a bunch of red flags.

    This definitely should not be taken by eminent domain.

  • 2021-08-20 at 12:32 pm
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    The only revenue Poolesville has been missing comes from their 25mph speed trap cameras.

  • 2021-08-20 at 4:43 pm
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    If the ferry owners convince (pay off) politicians to invoke eminent domain we have really come to a sad end in this country. Sure, it’s inconvenient that someone else owns the land you’d like to have for your business but it’s no more than that. Sad for you. Too bad. Move your ferry or buy the owner out. Leave the government (and we taxpayers and property owners) out of your beef.

    • 2021-08-23 at 8:44 pm
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      When was the easement purchased, for how much, and where was it recorded?

  • 2021-08-23 at 1:01 pm
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    I am dumbfounded at the lack of outrage here. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that Loudoun decides to exercise eminent domain to forcibly seize the property in question – they (the County) will still have to compensate Rocklands. You know, with our tax money. So, instead of Kuhn working through arbitration, our taxes will go to pay for Kuhn to continue making millions more.

    Lest we forget, Mr Kuhn recently bought Westpark Golf Course for $5 mil, then sold the undevelopable floodplain portion to Loudoun County for $3.8mil. This was AFTER Leesburg declined the $3.4mil sale offer (why did Loudoun agree to pay $400k more???), AND after Kuhn got millions in tax credits for putting that land into conservation easement under his name. He also kept the commercially zoned portion of the property (the Clubhouse) for himself, which is now for sale as a separate parcel (likely for millions more).

    How much more will Mr Kuhn swindle from Loudoun County under the guise of “conservation?”

    Rockland offered multiple, viable options for Mr Kuhn to resume operations. Why is it his opinion that eminent domain, where we the taxpayers foot the bill, is the only option moving forward? $$$$

  • 2021-08-23 at 1:44 pm
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    Let me preface my comments with the fact that while I am a lifetime resident of the county (over 60 years) I can count the number of times I have used White’s Ferry (WF) on the fingers of my hands. I view it as a primary benefit to the residents of Maryland, based solely on my unscientific observation of the traffic I witness on my daily travels on Route 15. Count me in the crowd that is unsympathetic to the pain Maryland residents may be experiencing with the closure of WF due to their state’s decades-long intransigence when it comes to agreeing to build more bridge crossings across the Potomac. You reap what you sow.

    Be that as it may, the current issue is the operation (or lack thereof) of WF. Rockland Farms (RF) has a ferry landing. The value of anything depends on whether you are the buyer or the seller. As the seller, I’m sure RF would like to think it is extremely valuable. However, I’m sure White’s Ferry (WF) as the buyer values it differently. As far as I am aware, they (RF & WF) are each monopolies when it comes to the ferry landing and the ferry operations. I’m unaware of another ferry landing in that area of the Potomac. I’m also unaware of any other ferry operator in that area of the Potomac. From that viewpoint, they both deserve each other.

    It would seem that it would be an easy thing to determine the fair value of that ferry landing that sits on that spit of land. Unless there is another ferry operator that I am unaware of that is willing to pay more for it, the value is the greater of what WF is willing to pay for it or what RF can get from it from some alternate use. That seems to be the missing piece, from my logic. If not a ferry landing, what value does that piece of land have in some alternate use and exactly what is that alternate use willing to pay? I’m betting the alternate use or economic potential is not near what RF is trying to extract from WF as a ferry landing. Maybe RF’s negotiating position would be a little stronger if they had someone else willing to pay them more for it and they could get WF to up their bid. Of course they always have the option of just saying they don’t want a ferry landing on their property, at any price. But I believe that ship has already sailed and it is obvious that RF is happy with having a monopoly on ferry landings in that stretch of the Potomac.

    I despise eminent domain and believe that the landowner should be justly compensated for any use of their private property. However, I believe the amount of money they are asking is entirely unreasonable unless they can demonstrate that it has greater economical potential in some other alternate use. While “Half-A-Buck-Chuck” may be catchy, it is trite, and is the primary contributor to the entirely unacceptable personal level this whole issue has degenerated into. RF would have no skin in the game when it comes to ferry operations. They wouldn’t be on the hook for salaries, benefits, maintenance, insurance, permits, Coast Guard compliance inspections, weather disruptions of operations, etc. I can understand WF’s refusal of sharing a portion of the ferry revenue with them. In my mind, that is unreasonable. I believe either an outright purchase or a flat-rate (and reasonable) annual rent would be more appropriate.

    The previous owners of RF were, indeed, very generous to Leesburg and Loudoun County – emphasis on previous. The previous owners are not parties to the current issue and they and their good works are not germane and have no place in this argument. Period. The fact that the current ownership is related to the previous owners and that they have long ties to Leesburg and Loudoun County is irrelevant, as is the fact that the current owners of WF are likewise “connected” to some very charitable endeavors in Loudoun County. That and about $4 may get you one of those designer coffees from your trendy coffee house. This is a private dispute between two business people that needs to be settled between them. As long as both of them are negotiating in good faith and their arguments are reasonable, the government should stay out of it and not even put their fingers on the scale. However as much as I despise eminent domain, I believe someone may just be begging for it if their demands are totally unreasonable and they are holding the public hostage while they try to extract more for what they have than what it is otherwise worth.

    • 2021-08-24 at 10:52 am
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      Wow, that might be the most thoughtful and considered comment I’ve ever read on LN.
      Thank you.

    • 2021-08-24 at 12:16 pm
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      Incredibly insightful, myownsense. Thank you for many reasonable and educated discussion points.

  • 2021-08-24 at 6:03 am
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    Virginia SGP, I thought you believed in the law and righteousness? There is no public way of record for the public to use Rockland’s property for a ferry by the public in perpetuity and at current usage. IMO, the county should not condemn the existing landing so Mr. Kuhn, who has reaped untold millions from the public purse already for fancy land and tax credit “deals,” to add to his coffers and deal list. I get the impression he is not used to paying a fair price. $.50 a car is more than fair. He says he is philanthropic. The $.50 will not cause the ferry to run at a deficit nor will it require an increase in the user fee unless he wants to pay a family or friend a hefty salary to operate the ferry. Full disclosure as to reasons why he won’t pay the $.50 would be helpful. Last I read, he stated the cars cannot be counted but recently he is talking about implementing new technology to use the ferry and in that, it is very easy to implement a car counting mechanism, especially to pay taxes on revenue. Right? It is unclear what kind of deal was structured to buy the commercial property on the river for $200,000 (see the public record) but hopefully, the public will come to understand this as this matter drags out needlessly (and a continued cost to the taxpayers for studies, staff, delay…) The Rockland family has been extraordinarily generous and deserves our appreciation not snide comments, OK?

  • 2021-08-26 at 5:50 am
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    Without having seen the financials for the ferry operations, experts “know” a proposed fee per car will not cause a deficit to the ferry operations. That is interesting. Those experts go on to say that if the ferry operator included that cost in the “toll” then the resulting sum would be a “hefty salary”. which is it expert? i presume a “hefty salary” would also be a “hefty sun” for the owners of the farm, eh?

  • 2021-11-18 at 11:18 am
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    While I do not believe in eminent domain regarding the landing area for the ferry, maybe the solution is to have the County take over ownership of both the landing and the ferry. Mr. Kuhn has offered to donate the ferry. Let him go ahead and do that. The County has public transportation under their wings and this would be another form of it. Both parties can be paid their 50 cents per trip out of the transport fee.

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