Montgomery Co. executive candidates debate reopening White’s Ferry

Five candidates for Montgomery County executive squared off in a debate in Poolesville, Maryland, Sunday night touching on issues impacting the western part of the county, known as the “upcounty.”

The first topic of discussion was how to reopen White’s Ferry. A disagreement between owners shuttered the ferry in December 2020.

At its peak, roughly 800 vehicles shuffled back and forth between Montgomery County and Loudoun County, Virginia, every day. Poolesville is the first stop after departing the ferry on the Maryland side. Residents say when ferry traffic closed, several small businesses and another commuter option did, too.

The owners on the Maryland and Virginia side of the river are at an impasse. Democratic candidate David Blair and Republican Reardon Sullivan told the crowd that it is time to reach out to owners again.

“We need to get everybody in the room and find out what their needs and desires are and come up with a solution that works for everyone,” said Sullivan, who lives in upcounty.

Incumbent County Executive Marc Elrich wants Virginia to use eminent domain to bring the ferry back. But he said that state is against the idea.

“They seem to be inflexible,” Elrich said of Virginia authorities. “I think they’re afraid of backlash from voters if they exercise imminent domain. But, we’ve made it very clear, we’re willing to contribute monetarily to a solution.”

Fellow Democrat Hans Riemer told the crowd that he would turn to political partnerships in Loudoun County to reopen the ferry.

“It’s absolutely vital to the success of Poolesville,” Reimer said. “We need to get Loudoun County to move. We need to figure out where we can get some political leverage to get Loudoun County to take action.”

Another plan involves replacing the ferry with a 12-foot-wide footbridge that would support autonomous vehicles. That’s what Democrat Peter James said he would do to avoid the owners’ squabble and bypass eminent domain.

“Our county is like deer in headlights,” James said. “We’ve got to look at these new solutions that can bring a full level of transit,” James said.

The candidates all agreed that the ferry’s closure has hampered many small businesses. They fielded a question on how to bring those businesses back.

Riemer said he wants to cut red tape for small business owners at the county’s permitting department, helping them speed through the start process.

James told the crowd he would deliver a faster online permit system “to allow your business to not go through all of that paperwork.”

Blair said he’s against raising taxes, and he touted a bill of rights for business owners.

“I’ve heard too many horror stories where someone was about to open their business to find out that an inspector missed something or there was another permit they needed,” Blair said. “That needs to change.”

Sullivan said he wants to see more grants for small proprietors, while Elrich looks to get them more county contracts.

“I don’t think enough small businesses realize that if they bid on contracts, they get preferences for it,” said Elrich. “We’re very good at handing out money to a large corporation. We need confidence in local businesses, too.”

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