Virginia transportation planners weigh long-term impact of White’s Ferry closure

FILE — Cars drive off White’s Ferry in Montgomery County, Maryland. (Courtesy Pete Piringer/Montgomery County Fire and Rescue)

Historic White’s Ferry stopped shuttling drivers across the Potomac River between Loudoun and Montgomery counties late last year, and it’s still docked because a legal battle over the easement where it lands in Virginia is stalled.

Transportation planners in Virginia said it could affect how they approach widening a major road that has taken on more traffic.

Herbert Brown’s family has operated White’s Ferry for generations. It closed after a flood around Christmastime that damaged a cable.

Brown told WTOP that he has made the repairs, so the ferry can begin service again. But he doesn’t want to reopen until he reaches a deal with Rockland Farm, his neighbors across the river.

“The Brown family of Maryland want the ferry to reopen. That’s our goal. But we want it to reopen permanently, and not for six or eight months and then get in another battle and having it close down again. We want it to run for at least another 150 years, or until they build the bridge,” Brown said.

A Loudoun County judge issued an injunction in November to prevent Brown’s business from using the land across the river to dock without providing compensation, as WTOP has reported.

Libby Devlin, who owns Rockland Farm in Leesburg, Virginia, where the ferry used to pick up and let off about 600 cars a day, said, “We’d welcome any kind of arrangement that would get the ferry back running and give us some fair compensation for the use of our landing … we basically have gotten no income from the ferry since 2004. And before that, we were only getting $5 a year.”

Meanwhile, the drivers who used White’s Ferry as part of their commute are now forced onto Route 15, a congested two-lane highway that the county is about to begin widening to four lanes.

While the legal battle over White’s Ferry’s operation does not involve the governments of Montgomery or Loudoun counties, county leaders are aware of and up to date on the status of negotiations since it affects traffic flow.

“The county has been concerned about the impact of this issue because we believe the ferry is part of the regional transportation network,” said Glen Barbour, with the Loudoun County administrator’s office. “It is possible that the lack of ferry operations would have a long-term impact on traffic in the region.”

“We certainly don’t need any more traffic on Route 15 in front of my house, that’s for sure,” Devlin said of the widening project set to begin. The project is divided into construction phases, and the first two meet right in front of her property, where planners intend to add an intersection.

Devlin welcomes any ideas on how the two parties could reach an agreement.

Brown is unwilling to pay $1.2 million the farm wants for use of the more than 5,000-square-foot easement. He has offered $400,000 for the easement, which he said lies on a floodplain.

“We understand what the public wants. We’re doing whatever we can, talking to whomever we can to try and get this reopened. I met with the town council, and I told them we’ll do whatever we can within reason, within what we can afford to do, to get it reopened,” Brown said.

Devlin has also offered to buy Brown’s Poolesville, Maryland, business with what she said was a “strong, all-cash offer, but it wasn’t what he wanted for it.”

Brown said he countered and has not heard back from the farm. Devlin said the 30-day window Brown offered her is contingent upon a down payment and meeting his unnamed price.

“We wrote back to him, saying that we might be able to come up in our offer if we could see the financials. But he has not offered that. He wants us to make an offer with a down payment. And then we have a 30-day due diligence period,” Devilin said. “But without even being able to see the basic financials and analyze the basics, it’s too hard for us to come in with an opening, you know, an offer.”

Brown is open to other buyers of his business, which includes a store and small restaurant. But he has no idea when that might happen.

“The Browns would love to have the ferry open, even if somebody else owns it. We’ve offered it to the Devlins at our price, not at theirs. But we want the ferry back open permanently,” Brown said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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