Loudoun Supervisors Weigh Eminent Domain at Whites Ferry

The saga that began with the closure of Whites Ferry in December 2020 now appears to be nearing an end—one way or another.

County supervisors on Tuesday night heard the results of a study commissioned by Loudoun County and Montgomery County, MD, that looks into the options for getting Whites Ferry back in operation, and for improving the service. And some discussed the possibility of an eminent domain vote—a forced purchase of the land using public funds—to provide the ferry operators with the rights to use the landing on the Virginia side of the river following a prolonged dispute with the property owners.

Ferry owner Chuck Kuhn said afterward that “short of imminent domain, I don’t know if the ferry will ever reopen.”

“We did not buy the ferry to make money or turn a profit,” Kuhn said. “We’ve actually offered to donate the ferry to Loudon County. We’ve offered to donate the ferry to Montgomery County in an effort to get it open. We just want to see a ferry opening and operating for the community.”

The ferry closed late last year after the cable guiding it across the Potomac River snapped. Shortly after that, a Loudoun Circuit Court judge issued a ruling in a decade-long case over the ferry operator’s right to use the Virginia landing at Rockland Farm, ruling in favor of the landowners and finding the ferry had no legal right to use the property.

In January, Kuhn, the founder and CEO of JK Moving Services, bought the ferry, but negotiations over a new agreement to use the Virginia landing stalled by April.

April was when Kuhn first said he would seek more help from governments in Maryland and Virginia—raising a debate around using eminent domain to reopen what has historically been a private business.

Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin), whose district includes the Virginia landing, indicated supervisors will be making a choice soon if the dispute remains unresolved. He said he will be looking more into the study presented Tuesday night.

“I think I have not fully digested it. I look forward to digesting it in the next couple of weeks before perhaps an item does come to us in terms of the decision that we have to make as a board of how we’re going to proceed or not proceed,” Kershner said. But he also said he continues to believe there is a private solution possible.

A number of people during the public comment section of the meeting said the government should not be using its powers to interfere. One called it “a dangerous and unethical precedent to set.”

County officials have begun laying out the legal framework for the possibility of an eminent domain vote. Under questioning from Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), County Attorney Leo Rogers said such action would be possible if the county enters an agreement with the ferry operator on how it will be operated to serve the public.

Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) said it would only be defensible if the county plans for public ownership of the ferry landing—not private.

“I do not believe eminent domain should be on the table at all if we anticipate that the final outcome of this will be private ownership and private operation,” Turner said. “That’s an inappropriate use of imminent domain.”

Board Vice Chairman Koran Saines (D-Sterling) has already said he won’t consider eminent domain.

And Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed to the larger problem with getting across the Potomac River. He said it’s a “Band-Aid” for the real problem, one that Loudoun is doing its part to address by spending hundreds of millions on a project to widen Rt. 15.

“But the reality is, our friends in Maryland have something they could do too, and that’s work with us on an actual river crossing,” Letourneau said. “Not a piece of technology a hundred years old, but a bridge for some way to actually cross the river, and this is a conversation that Loudoun County has is wanting to have for many, many years.”

Maryland elected officials have long blocked discussions of a new bridge crossing the Potomac into Montgomery County.

Although supervisors agreed a private solution would be best, after months of stalled negotiations, that appears unlikely.

“We’ve been trying to come up with all kinds of ideas and solutions. The feeling is that with the idea of eminent domain out there, the owner does not want to negotiate with us because he has no motivation to,” said Libby Devlin, manager of the property and a member of the family that owns Rockland.

“We have exhausted all efforts, all extremes, to try and negotiate with billionaire Peter Brown, Libby Devlin and the owners of Rockland Farm. We’ve tried to come to a reasonable negotiation to get the ferry reopened, to try and get access to the Virginia shoreline, and unfortunately, it’s just not happened,” Kuhn said.

While in operation, the ferry carried 600-800 cars a day across the river along with cyclist and pedestrians. And with Maryland’s longstanding opposition to allowing a new bridge, the ferry appears to be the only option for crossing the river between the Point of Rocks bridge and the American Legion Memorial Bridge for the foreseeable future.

The study found that if an agreement is reached to restart service, the ferry could be up and running again as it was before within weeks, allowing for time re-attach the ferry cable across the river, inspect the ferry vessel, and hire any needed staff. The study estimated up to 12 weeks once issues around the landing rights are resolved.

But the study also looked into the limitations for the ferry facilities today, and the options for expanding that service, with demand for ways to cross the river only expected to increase in the future. According to the study, White’s Ferry carried 80% of the trips between western Montgomery County and northeast Loudoun County, traffic that is otherwise forced onto Rt. 15 and the Point of Rocks bridge.

The study found that on the Virginian side, the road leading to the ferry is narrow, with tight turns and no shoulders, and on the Maryland side there are facilities that encroach on National Parks Service land. Both sides also have limited parking.

The study also recommends long-term improvements to ferry service, with changes to staffing, roadways, fare collection, lighting, and vessel capacity, with the ferry vessel expected to need replacement within the next decade, offering an opportunity to expand or improve the ferry.

The study considered the cost if the government were to take over and directly operate or contract out ferry operations, finding those options to be feasible but with funding gaps. In the first five years, the study projects a $13.7 million shortfall in funding if the government runs the ferry as it is, and a shortfall of $14.6 million if the government goes with recommended improvements to the ferry. Those shortfalls are all projected to be under a million dollars for contracting the ferry as is, and $1.5 million for contracting an improved ferry.

The study also estimates that if open for a full year in 2023, the ferry as-is would have a $9 million positive economic impact through jobs, travel time savings, and other savings for travelers.

17 thoughts on “Loudoun Supervisors Weigh Eminent Domain at Whites Ferry

  • 2021-11-17 at 12:02 am
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    I’d hate to see White’s Ferry go. It’s very historic, the only remaining ferry in the region & reasonably priced. The ferry helps many folks stay connected to the natural beauty of Loudoun & Montgomery counties. I don’t like the fact it was named after a Confederate general. But nothing is perfect. And perhaps that problem can be rectified. I hope officials get their act together to ensure a promising future for White’s Ferry. Happy Holidays, Loudoun!

  • 2021-11-17 at 7:55 am
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    No, absolutely not.

    Not even if the sweet baby Jesus owned the ferry, promised free rides for all and a lollipop for the kids.

  • 2021-11-17 at 8:17 am
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    Chuck. Stop trying to steal these people’s land.

    Why did you refuse to go to arbitration? If you want to play ferry Captain you’re going to have to pay the people whose land you want to use instead of going to the politicians you’ve ‘supported’ through the years.

    • 2021-11-17 at 7:54 pm
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      Chuck says: “We just want to see a ferry opening and operating for the community.”

      Really? Then give it to Rockland Farm and let them operate the ferry.

      • 2021-11-18 at 12:34 pm
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        Chuck Kuhn is a fraud – reminds me of Gates and the CCP – more and more truth will come out and the citizens will see the truth.

    • 2021-11-18 at 7:33 am
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      Chuck has a hx of stealing people’s land – then portraying himself as a conservationist is a joke. He is greedy greedy greedy. We need to hold him accountable. More lawsuits will be in the public.

  • 2021-11-17 at 11:02 am
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    The previous ferry operators were making $750K a year and stopped paying the Virginia land owners years ago.

  • 2021-11-17 at 11:43 am
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    The idea that the county can run a ferry is laughable. They certainly can’t run schools. And the idea that the county can forcibly take property from one citizen and award it to another to benefit the second party ought to be abhorrent. If the county goes down this road I expect the legal battles will last a very long time and benefit no one.

  • 2021-11-17 at 3:46 pm
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    Put an end to the blackmail by the adjacent landowners. Pursue eminent domain.

  • 2021-11-17 at 3:50 pm
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    The billionaire Brown family could donate the little strip of land to the county or sell it at Agricultural (A3) market rate to the ferry owners but they don’t want to do that. They wanted to be paid per car and take what little profit the ferry made for themselves. They wanted $500,000+ per year for land that is not even worth $100,000. This is the same family who also opposes the widening of Rt 15, they don’t care about the people of Loudoun or the good of the public. For them it is only how can we milk more money out of the ferry passengers.

    And the County can take land for private use, they do it all the time for utilities, same principle. Also the supreme court case Kelo allows a state to take land from one owner and give/sell it to another for economic interests.

  • 2021-11-17 at 7:39 pm
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    Build a bridge and stop using the public purse for wealthy donors to get a free ride rather than paying for what they want. I guess the new owners banked on getting the county to do the dirty work. This is not only transparent maneuvering but disgusting.

    • 2021-11-18 at 12:41 pm
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      Private land should stay in their family. Kuhn is the multi billionaire. He has a history of bullying people.

  • 2021-11-18 at 11:27 am
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    Virginia
    In 2012, the Virginia General Assembly approved a ballot measure for the November general election that would amend the state constitution to greatly restrict the government’s ability to condemn land for private benefit.[64] The measure succeeded with nearly 75% of the electorate in support of the eminent domain reform.[65] The reform resulted in an amendment to Virginia’s Bill of Rights seeking to prevent a situation like Kelo which read in part: “a taking or damaging of private property is not for public use if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development, except for the elimination of a public nuisance existing on the property. The condemnor bears the burden of proving that the use is public, without a presumption that it is

  • 2021-11-18 at 5:10 pm
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    This whole thing is ludicrous! The Brown’s are being greedy and ridiculous about a small parcel of land NOT even on their side of access road! Chuck wants to look benevolent and just keeps buying up land..Kuhn County and growing.
    Just ignore the whole fiasco, let regular folks continue to be the ones affected with no alternate route, a Rt 15 mess and politics reining supreme!
    P.S. I’m sure there was a Yankee named White somewhere! But that’s a whole ‘nother can of ridiculousness!

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