Domain services

Loudoun supervisors weigh eminent domain at 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 on Tuesday evening the results of a study commissioned by Loudoun County and Montgomery County, Md., Which is examining options to put Whites Ferry back into service and improve service. And some have discussed the possibility of a prominent estate vote – a forced purchase of the land with public funds – to provide ferry operators with the right to use the landing stage on the Virginia side of the river as a result. a protracted dispute with landowners.

Ferry owner Chuck Kuhn later said that “unless there is an impending 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. “In fact, we 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 run for the community. “

The ferry closed late last year after the cable guiding it across the Potomac River broke. Shortly thereafter, a Loudoun Circuit Court judge rendered a ruling in a ten-year case concerning the ferry operator’s right to use the Virginia landing at Rockland Farm, ruling in favor of the landowners and concluding that the ferry had no legal right to use the property. .

In January, Kuhn, founder and CEO of JK Moving Services, bought the ferry, but negotiations on a new deal to use the Virginia landing stalled in April.

It was in April that Kuhn first said he would ask for more help from the governments of Maryland and Virginia, sparking debate over using a prominent estate to reopen what was historically a private enterprise. .

Supervisor Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin), whose district includes the Virginia landing, said supervisors would make a choice soon if the dispute was still not resolved. He said he would look more into the study presented on Tuesday evening.

“I don’t think I completely digested it. I look forward to digesting it over the next couple of weeks before something perhaps comes to us in terms of a decision we need to make as a board of directors on how we are going or not going ”, Kershner said. But he also said he continued to believe a private solution was possible.

A number of people during 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 be set.”

County officials began to define the legal framework for the possibility of a prominent domain vote. When asked by Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), County Attorney Leo Rogers said such action would be possible if the county reached an agreement with the ferry operator on how it would be operated to serve the public.

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

“I don’t think at all that a prominent domain should be on the table if we anticipate that the end result of it will be private property and private operation,” Turner said. “This is improper use of the impending domain.”

Vice-chairman of the board, Koran Saines (D-Sterling) has previously said he would not consider the estate prominent.

And Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed out the bigger problem with crossing the Potomac River. He said it was an “aid bandage” for the real problem, a problem that Loudoun is doing its part to solve by spending hundreds of millions on an Rt. 15 expansion project.

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

Maryland elected officials have long blocked 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, it seems unlikely.

“We tried to come up with all kinds of ideas and solutions. The feeling is that with the idea of ​​a prominent estate, 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 family owned by Rockland.

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

While in operation, the ferry carried 600 to 800 cars per day across the river as well as cyclists and pedestrians. And with Maryland’s longstanding opposition to a new bridge being allowed, 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 made to restart the service, the ferry could be back up and running as it was before in a matter of weeks, allowing time to reattach the ferry cable across the river, d ‘inspect the ferry and hire everything you need. Staff. The study estimated up to 12 weeks after the landing rights issues were resolved.

But the study also looked at the limitations of ferry facilities today and options for expanding this service, with demand for means of crossing the river only expected to increase in the future. According to the study, White’s Ferry made 80% of trips between western Montgomery County and northeastern Loudoun County, with traffic otherwise forced onto the highway. 15 and the Point of Rocks Bridge.

The study found that on the Virginia side, the route to the ferry is narrow, with sharp turns and no shoulders, and on the Maryland side, facilities encroach on National Parks Service lands. Both sides also have limited parking.

The study also recommends long-term improvements to the ferry service, with changes to personnel, routes, fare perception, lighting and vessel capacity, with the ferry needing to be replaced over the course of time. over the next decade, providing the opportunity to expand or improve the ferry. .

The study examined the cost if the government were to directly take over and operate or outsource ferry operations, finding these options feasible but with funding gaps. In the first five years, the study projects a shortfall of $ 13.7 million if the government runs the ferry as is, and a shortfall of $ 14.6 million if the government accepts the recommended improvements. at the ferry. These shortfalls are all expected to be less than $ 1 million for the purchase of the ferry as is and $ 1.5 million for the purchase of an upgraded ferry.

The study also estimates that if opened 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 savings for passengers. travelers.