The family who bought the last remaining ferry crossing the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia won’t get to realize their dream of finally reopening the ferry business.
White’s Ferry traveled between Loudoun County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland, from the 1790s until 2020 and was the last of the 100 ferries that once existed on the Potomac. In recent years it carried about 1,100 commuters and tourists per day, accommodating up to 24 passenger vehicles at a time.
After centuries of getting people across the river, the ferry came to a halt because of a long-running dispute with the owners of the property where the ferry lands on the Virginia side.
As Bay Bulletin reported in November 2021, the 11-year dispute came to a head when a Loudoun County Circuit Court ruling sided with the landowners, Rockland Farm. The property owners said White’s Ferry breached a 1952 license agreement by altering the landing approach without permission.
Rockland’s owners argued that the ferry had been operating all those years without fairly compensating them. They proposed charging 50 cents per car each way, which the ferry’s owner said would be make the business unviable.
The Brown family owned White’s Ferry since World War II, but gave it up in 2020 when the legal troubles shut down operations. Loudoun County businessman Chuck Kuhn and his wife Stacy bought the ferry business to help save it, but the Kuhns were unable to successfully negotiate with Rockland Farm.
Rockland’s owners maintain they have “made several offers to date to get White’s Ferry to reopen,” according to owner Libby Devlin, who spoke to Bay Bulletin to “set the record straight”.
“We were in negotiations with the Browns to buy the ferry and the land when Mr. Kuhn stepped in and bought it. But he would never disclose the price or the terms of the deal,” Devlin says, listing the alternatives Rockland Farm offered to the Kuhns. “All that it would have taken to get the ferry open would be to increase the fee by 50 cents per ride for the use of our landing, but Mr. Kuhn said no.”
Then, the Kuhns teamed up with the states of Maryland and Virginia, Montgomery and Loudoun counties’ economic development authorities and transportation departments, and previous ferry owner Herb Brown, to develop a proposal to purchase the Virginia landing site from Rockland Farm.
Under the plan, Rockland Farm would sell the 1.4-acre landing site for $1.1 million. The landing site would be limited to public use. White’s Ferry says that sum was “well above the land value”.
But news broke this week that Rockland Farm’s owners rejected the bid. Devlin says it’s because Rockland will not accept a flat fee for the Virginia landing. “We favor a volume-based fee that varies with the amount of traffic encroaching upon our land.”
White’s Ferry’s owners say they’re through negotiating with Rockland Farm.
“It’s unfathomable that one family is standing in the way of people’s livelihoods. We have run out of options and will now seek to sell the ferry land and operations to Montgomery County so it can work with Virginia to invoke eminent domain and acquire the Virginia landing site. This is not what we had hoped, but we understand the importance of White’s Ferry to the region’s economy—and the ferry needs to get moving again,” says Chuck Kuhn.
Rockland Farms sees things differently. Devlin tells Bay Bulletin, “Mr. Kuhn’s willingness to sell the Maryland ferry assets to Montgomery County is good news. We have located a nationally based company that will work with both sides to get a ferry up and running again and operate it. If Mr. Kuhn will disclose his price, Rockland Farm will consider buying the ferry assets for the same price and will bring in the independent operator to get a ferry up and running again without further ado.”
The Kuhns say they were standing ready to reopen within 30 days of an agreement with Rockland Farms, having invested in necessary upgrades during negotiations.
“We needed an agreement that we could build a business model around…Sadly, one entity—one family—refuses to be part of the solution and is hurting real people and our local communities,” says Chuck Kuhn.
The ferry owners say that resuming operations could have an economic impact of over $9 million this year alone (including savings on travel time, travel cost and safety, emissions avoided, and trips not taken) according to a Montgomery County Department of Transportation study.
-Meg Walburn Viviano