The operator of White’s Ferry, the historic Potomac River crossing in Poolesville, Maryland, announced Monday it would close up shop immediately following a judge’s decision in a decade-long court case brought by a Virginia property owner.
As a result, the ferry operator, which has docked on the Virginia side of the river for over two centuries, announced its closure via a Facebook post at 10 a.m. Monday.
The ferry operators cited a Loudoun County Circuit Court ruling in November.
The Nov. 23 decision, Stephen E. Sincavage of the Loudoun County Circuit Court awarded damages to the owner of the Virginia property owner, known as Rockland Farm, in excess of $100,000, agreed that White’s Ferry had been trespassing since the end of a licensing agreement in 2004 and through an injunction, prevented White’s Ferry from continuing to use the land.
However, the news of the ferry’s closure “came as a shock” to the plaintiff, Rockland Farm, LLC, which said in an announcement Monday evening that it had been working to reach an agreement to keep the ferry open throughout the twists and turns of the legal case.
In its statement, Rockland Farm said it had even proposed discussing a purchase of the ferry’s business, but White’s Ferry did not engage.
“At our direction, our attorneys have not yet presented any Final Order to the Court which would prevent White’s Ferry from operating,” the Rockland Farm statement read. “We have delayed in the hope of reaching a fair agreement. The decision to close operations today was solely made by White’s Ferry.”
Loudoun County released a statement on Monday afternoon noting that the dispute is between two private parties, and that the land owners and ferry company are working on a resolution.
READ THE JUDGE’S OPINION (.pdf): Injunction entered and financial damages awarded
The ferry operator has been in court with Rockland Farm, LLC for over a decade, according to Loudoun Circuit Court filings.
The owners of the Rockland property complained that White’s Ferry was unlawfully occupying its land since an agreement between the ferry and the property owners, inked in 1952, expired in the early 2000s. White’s Ferry argued for its right to use the landing due to having customers and business operations on that side of the river for over two centuries.
The case has been postponed and delayed and dismissed throughout the years before the most recent decision, written by the judge last month.
The judge found that the ferry operators have been trespassing on the Virginia land since the licensing agreement ended in 2004. The judge considered a number of arguments about the right to public use of the land in Virginia, going back to a case in 1871.
Sincavage ultimately decided that the ferry operators would likely continue using the land in Virginia without an injunction, and granted that injunction to stop the docking.
In addition, the judge awarded financial damages to Rockland because of what the owners called property damage along with the unauthorized use of the Virginia property, totaling just over $100,000 plus interest.
Sincavage agreed White’s Ferry had been using the Virginia land without paying rent or a licensing fee for over a decade, but the Rockland request for back rent of over $600,000 was based on “speculative” calculations. Therefore, the judge did not award further damages for unpaid rent.
In it’s statement, Rockland Farm claimed that, according to White’s Ferry’s sworn statements and own financial records, it made over $7 million in profits — or about $675,000 per year — since the license agreement ended in 2004.
Political leaders on both sides of the Potomac have been vocal about their willingness to keep the route open, or at least find a reasonable alternative.
Poolesville, Maryland’s town manager is Seth Rivard. He said he first heard the news when White’s Ferry made its Facebook post.
“The town sees this is a vital link between the two states,” Rivard said. “It allows both our residents to use the ferry as a commuter option and allows residents to cross for personal and work-related purposes. It’s important for people to cross the river and come into Poolesville to shop or visit or attend events. It’s very important for our community that this remains in operation.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Loudoun County Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner, who’s district covers the Virginia side of the ferry’s landing, both expressed their disappointment with the White’s Ferry’s decision to close in separate statements.
For more than 200 years, @MontgomeryCoMD has relied on White’s Ferry as a connection to Virginia. Today’s announcement that the Ferry has ceased operations is deeply concerning and will have a significant impact.
— County Exec Marc Elrich (@MontCoExec) December 28, 2020
Elrich said he directed the county’s Department of Transportation to work with Loudoun County’s government to address the closure.
Similarly, Kershner said he is exploring all possible remedies to “restore this vital regional transportation link between Montgomery and Loudoun counties. This historic landmark has been home to a ferry service since 1786 and should continue to serve Virginia and Maryland citizens.”
Kershener also suggested building an additional bridge connecting the two states to accommodate the 600 — 860 vehicles a day that were served by the ferry.
Loudoun County issued a news release Monday afternoon in an attempt to make clear that the lawsuit is between two private parties, who are currently in negotiation.
“The decision to cease operation of the ferry was a unilateral decision made by White’s Ferry, Inc., which operates the privately owned ferry,” the county said.
The county expressed concern about the ferry’s decision to close down.
“We recognize that any impact to ferry service may impact our residents and people who work in Loudoun County.”
Understandably, commuters and residents who depend on the ferry connection have expressed their disappointment via social media.
One business near White’s Ferry is Rocklands Farm Winery, which, in a statement sent to WTOP said it is not affiliated with the landowners who made the complaint. Rocklands Farm Winery has been mistakenly getting complaints about the lawsuit.
See the location of White’s Ferry via the map below.
WTOP’s Matthew Delaney and Jack Moore contributed to this report.