Loudoun supervisors assess eminent domain in Whites Ferry

The saga that began with the closure of Whites Ferry in December 2020 now seems to be coming to an end, one way or another.

County supervisors heard Tuesday evening the results of a study commissioned by Loudoun County and Montgomery County, MD, which is examining options for returning Whites Ferry to service and improving service. And some have discussed the possibility of a vote of eminent domain – a forced purchase of the land using public funds – to give ferry operators the right to use the landing stage on the Virginia side of the river following of a protracted dispute with the owners.

Ferry owner Chuck Kuhn said afterwards that “unless there is an imminent estate, I don’t know if the ferry will ever reopen”.

“We didn’t buy the ferry to make money or make a profit,” Kuhn said. “We actually offered to donate the ferry to Loudon County. We offered to donate the ferry to Montgomery County for the purpose of opening it. We just want to see a ferry open and working for the community.

The ferry closed late last year after the cable that guided it across the Potomac River broke. Shortly after, a Loudoun Circuit Court judge ruled in a decade-long case involving the ferry operator’s right to use the Virginia landing stage at Rockland Farm, ruling in favor of the owners. land and concluding that 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 for a new deal to use the Virginia pier stalled in April.

It was in April that Kuhn first said he would ask the governments of Maryland and Virginia for more help, sparking debate over the use of eminent domain to reopen what was historically a private company.

Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin), whose district includes the Virginia Landing, said supervisors will make a choice soon if the dispute remains unresolved. He said he would take a closer look at the study presented on Tuesday evening.

“I think I haven’t fully digested it. I’m looking forward to digesting it in the next couple of weeks before something maybe comes to us in terms of the decision we have to make as a board of directors. administration on how we are going to proceed or not,” Kershner said, but he also said he continued to believe a private solution was possible.

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

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

Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) said that would only be arguable if the county provided for public ownership of the ferry landing, not private.

“I don’t think eminent domain should be on the table if we anticipate the end result of this to be private ownership and private operation,” Turner said. “This is an inappropriate use of the looming domain.”

Board Vice Chairman Koran Saines (D-Sterling) has previously said he will not consider eminent domain.

And supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed to the larger problem of crossing the Potomac River. He said it’s a “band-aid” for the real problem, one that Loudoun is doing its part to solve by spending hundreds of millions on a Rt. 15 widening project.

“But the reality is that our friends in Maryland have something they could do too, and that’s work with us on a real river crossing,” Letourneau said. “Not century-old technology, but a bridge to cross the river, and that’s a conversation Loudoun County has wanted to have for many, many years.”

Maryland lawmakers have long stalled talks on a new bridge across the Potomac in Montgomery County.

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

“We tried to come up with all sorts of ideas and solutions. The feeling is that with the idea of ​​eminent domain there, the owner doesn’t want to negotiate with us because he has no motivation to do so,” said Libby Devlin, property manager and member of the Rockland owning family.

“We have exhausted every effort, every extreme, trying to negotiate with billionaire Peter Brown, Libby Devlin and the owners of Rockland Farm. We tried to come to a reasonable negotiation to get the ferry to reopen, to try to get access to the Virginia coastline, and unfortunately that just didn’t happen,” Kuhn said.

While in operation, the ferry transported 600 to 800 cars a day on the river, as well as cyclists and pedestrians. And with Maryland’s longstanding opposition to allowing a new bridge, the ferry appears to be the only option to cross 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 the service, the ferry could be operational again as before within weeks, allowing time to reattach the ferry cable across the river, inspect the ferry and hire any the necessary. Staff. The study estimated up to 12 weeks once the landing rights issues were resolved.

But the study also looked at the limitations of ferry facilities today and options for expanding the 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 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 Virginia side, the road to the ferry is narrow, with sharp 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 the ferry service, with changes in staff, routes, fare collection, lighting and vessel capacity, with the ferry due to need replacing over the next decade, providing an opportunity to expand or improve the ferry. .

The study looked at the cost if the government were to directly own and operate or contract out ferry operations, concluding that these options were feasible but with funding gaps. Over the first five years, the study projects a loss of revenue of $13.7 million if the government operates the ferry as is, and a loss of revenue of $14.6 million if the government implements the recommended improvements. at the ferry. These shortfalls should all be less than $1 million for the purchase of the ferry as is and $1.5 million for the purchase of an improved ferry.

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