White’s Ferry and Philomont Fire Station-
Muddy Waters at the River, Fire on the Mountain
By Laura Longley
Beginning in September, Western Loudoun—from the shores of the Potomac River to the Blue Ridge Mountains—will be the focus of two controversial projects: White’s Ferry and the Philomont Fire Station.
Unless you’ve had an hour added to your commute to Maryland, you may not have noticed the dark, choppy waters at White’s Ferry. But down the road, the ferry—and the bridge that might follow—is likely to change the way you live in Loudoun.
Muddy Waters: Are they clearing?
The battle over “Historic White’s Ferry”—formerly named for Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early—may be coming to some kind of resolution in the next few months.
At this time, however, County transportation staff sound encouraged that there’s movement to meet their mission: to provide for the community.
According to Joe Kroboth, director of the Loudoun County Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure, a study designed in part to inform the staff and Board of Supervisors on various kinds of ferry operations, vessel types, site requirements, and safety measures is moving toward release in October. “We are learning about the applicable regulations around ferry operations and what we’d need to put into an agreement with the operator, which may be Mr.[Chuck] Kuhn,” the ferry’s new owner.
The study is also looking at ferry traffic projections, but, said Kroboth, “Our goal right now is to restore service between Virginia and Maryland” and get the word out about the service. “For so long—some 200 years—it’s been word of mouth, which may partly explain traffic of only 600 to 800 cars a day.”
At the moment, to prepare for any steps by the County toward an eminent domain taking of land for the Virginia dock, he explained, “We do have surveyors on the ground and will determine the amount of land that would be needed to make a safe ferry landing,” he said. Later, they would obtain appraisals for negotiations.
Kroboth added, “Once we complete the process of acquiring the land necessary to restore operations, we would make an agreement with whomever the ferry owner is to ensure they operate according to the applicable regulations.”
As for who ultimately owns the land after an eminent domain action, Kroboth confirmed it would be either the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors or VDOT.
How did we get here ?
From a small ferry with a shaky agreement with the owner of the land where he was docking, how did we get to this major disruption in interstate commerce and commuting?
It’s complicated. Let’s look at it in terms of chess moves.
White’s Ferry: The boat with landings on the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac has been in operation since 1786, starting out as Conrad’s Ferry.
When Conrad’s Ferry stopped operating before 1947, a ferry operator named Elijah White expressed interest in reopening the service. In 1952, the Rockland owners entered into a licensing agreement with White’s Ferry for $5 per year for the use of the landing at Rockland Farm so long as the ferry landing was never changed or enlarged under its current operation. When the ferry owner stopped paying his $5 a year lease fee, the owners of Rockland said enough and went to court.
More than 16 years ago, the ferry owner enlarged the ferry landing and built structures on Rockland, violating the half century-old agreement. According to the Rockland statement, “Finally, after being stonewalled time and again by White’s Ferry, Rockland had no choice but to file suit on December 2, 2020.” After many attempts to settle the case out of court, the suit was decided in Loudoun County Circuit Court in Rockland’s favor …” The court ruled that the owner of White’s Ferry had been trespassing and was no longer able to make use of Rockland without permission.
The ferry owner closed this important link to Maryland on Dec. 28, 2020.
Enter Chuck Kuhn: Owner and CEO of J.K. Moving, Chuck Kuhn and his wife, Stacy Kuhn, bought the ferry and the landing rights on the Maryland side from Herb Brown. They bought the ferry, he says, for its historic importance and out of concern for all the people and businesses left adrift.
But Kuhn has not been able to reach agreement on the Rockland land with its majority owner, Peter Brown.
Peter Brown is the eldest child of Henry (Harry) Brown and Elizabeth Rust (Betsey) Brown. The Browns’ parents were deeply involved in the preservation and conservation of Loudoun County’s history and open land.
Betsey Brown served as Catoctin District Supervisor, the post now held by Caleb Kershner. Harry Brown, before retiring to Rockland in 1969, co-founded America’s first Money Market Mutual Fund (The Reserve Fund). He and Betsey placed the house on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained the 500-acre property in agricultural use.
Peter Brown, CEO of Renaissance Technologies, shares ownership of Rockland with his sisters, Libby Devlin and Harriet Dickerson.
Kuhn and Brown negotiations over the Rockland-owned ferry docking site needed by Kuhn to restore the ferry operations, began shortly after Kuhn closed on the purchase of the ferry boat, a store, and the dock on the Maryland shoreline. Both parties have indicated they proposed several solutions to reach agreement.
Kuhn began enlisting other players to move negotiations forward. He says he has made and taken many calls and meetings with Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers, Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis J. Randall, and several other Supervisors, including Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony Buffington and Catoctin District Supervisor Kershner, along with Poolesville, Montgomery County, and State of Maryland officials. Together they are working on a strategy to take the necessary Rockland Farm property through eminent domain.
In Poolesville, talk of a bridge
On Aug. 18, speaking at a Poolesville “Fair Access” gathering, Kuhn and Kershner gained enthusiastic buy-in from local, county, and state officials present. Kuhn opened the meeting by reviewing what he called “a dispute between two private parties in two separate states. But,” he added, “I think we have a very good road map now.”
Supervisor Kershner offered a longer view of what’s down the road:
“Rt. 15 carries 26,000 – 27,000 cars per day,” he began. “The road was engineered for 12,000. We’re in the process of widening it, but even with widening, it will be full by 2040.
“Quite frankly, I would be remiss if I did not mention that at some point, we’d be looking at the need for a bridge between Maryland and Virginia.
“If our jurisdictions are truly serious about mitigating congestion and providing solid solutions for our residents, we must start discussions between our political entities in this vein. We owe it to our residents on both sides of the river … And, obviously, this White’s Ferry passage over this river, which has been going on for well over 200 years, is just a small part, but a very, very important part.”
A Poolesville business owner asked,” How long will it be until the ferry is running again?”
Kershner replied, “That would be a question better posed to our County Attorney. Obviously, it depends on all parties involved and what legal wrangling may or may not occur.”
Kuhn put a time stamp on the White’s Ferry reopening as he brought discussion to a close.
“I spoke to [Loudoun County Attorney] Leo Rogers, and, from what he’s told me, the study will be wrapping up in September. This should be in front of the Board of Supervisors for a vote at their December meeting.”
Fire on the Mountain?
After a year out of the headlines, the Philomont Fire Station is back and ready to spark if residents’ voices on the renovation of the existing facility have not been taken into serious account by Loudoun County Fire & Rescue and County Transportation and Capital Infrastructure.
On Thursday, Sept. 9, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Woodgrove High School, Loudoun County Fire & Rescue officials, County staff, current Philomont volunteer firefighters, and local residents will gather to learn the outcome of a study to renovate the village’s existing fire station or go all in for a brand new facility.
Last year the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Department called a last-minute meeting to present their plans for a 25,000-square-foot Philomont fire station on the historic Horse Show Grounds on busy Snickersville Turnpike.
At that meeting, several residents promoted the idea of renovating the existing firehouse, pointing to the award-winning upgrade of the Middleburg Fire Station.
Since then, the study has proceeded with input by Reston-based LeMay Erickson Willcox, a firm that renovated the Middleburg Fire Station and has designed several other Loudoun stations.
According to Transportation and Capital Infrastructure Director Joe Kroboth, the architects will present two renovation options at the Sept. 9 meeting.
Recommendations from that meeting will be put forward to the Board of Supervisors in an October business meeting.