New Howard County officials weigh flood plan’s future

ELLICOTT CITY, Maryland — After Howard County’s new five-member council and executive are installed in office on Dec. 3, they will have to hit the ground running as they face the pressing and complex issue of how to proceed with a $50 million flood mitigation plan for Ellicott City, Maryland.

“Ellicott City will be an immediate priority,” County Executive-elect Calvin Ball said in a statement to Capital News Service last week. “I want to assure the residents, businesses, and property owners that I intend to keep the timeline of upstream storm water mitigation projects put forth by my predecessor.”

One central question for the historic town, devastated by two 1,000-year floods in less than two years, is what to do about the flooded buildings downstream. The latest plan, put forward by the outgoing administration, would include knocking down some older buildings — and that’s where opinions differ.

The five-year plan was announced in August by County Executive Allan Kittleman and County Councilman Jon Weinstein, who will be ending their respective terms in office next month.

Kittleman, 60, was elected four years ago as the first Republican to serve as county executive since 1996.  He is being replaced by Ball, 43, a Democrat who has been representing District 2, which includes Columbia and Oakland Mills,  as a councilman for the last 12 years.

In October, the council approved two of three amended funding bills to partially finance the county’s plan — to purchase and raze 10 buildings in historic Ellicott City and expand the Tiber River stream channel — in an effort to reduce damage done by rushing water during flash floods.

Ball was one of two council members who voted against all three bills. He stated that he voted no because some of his proposed amendments, which he believed would address the plan’s shortfalls, were not included.

Democrat Jen Terrasa, another council member whose term is ending, also voted against the funding bills.

Ball said he plans to research options before signing off on the demolition of the buildings.

“My transition team will be tasked with evaluating all viable options to avoid the need for the demolition of lower Main Street,” said Ball in the statement to Capital News Service.  “However, our work in this regard will not delay those critical projects that will provide immediate safety for Main Street.”

Widening the stream channel on upper Main Street and working on fully engineered stormwater facilities that will provide additional downstream protection are critical projects he supports, Ball said.

The new administration will also work with the state Legislature to raise additional funding that will be used to improve the plan, Ball said.

Attorney and civil engineer Liz Walsh, a Democrat who won the District 1 County Council seat that Weinstein used to hold, has publicly stated that she wants to study the engineering report that is the basis for tearing down the properties.

Efforts by Capital News Service to obtain comment from Walsh and other newly elected council members were either unsuccessful or unanswered.

From the outset, the plan was opposed by Preservation Maryland and others who have voiced concerns that removal of the structures could result in undesirable consequences.

“This plan, which seems to have been developed without substantive public input, could result in the de-listing of Ellicott City from the National Register of Historic Places,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland during an interview with Capital News Service in September. “The removal could eliminate or diminish incentives and tax credits available for the historic community in Howard County.”

However, the preservation advocacy group released a statement two days after the election that said the approved plan had “worthwhile and positive components,” and they supported  “the scientifically-proven upstream stormwater retention and mitigation components of the plan.”

The largest bone of contention to the county’s current plan is the removal of the buildings in the Historic District without reducing flash flood waters to safe levels and speeds, Redding said.

Flood water velocity would be reduced from about 11.1 feet per second, which happened during a July 30, 2016, flood, to approximately 4.5 feet per second. Two people died in that flood.

The flood water’s depth would decrease from over 8 feet to 2-6 feet, according to numbers in the county’s plan.

After a May 2018 flood, in which one person died, property owners approached the county to acquire their buildings, county officials said.

That depth and speed of water traveling down Main Street in the approved plan is not close to safe, Redding said.

“With the election now settled, non-partisan groups like Preservation Maryland are prepared to engage with newly elected officials about the future of the historic community,” Redding wrote in a statement on the organization’s website.

In contrast, several members of the business community in Howard County who have been supportive of the “Kittleman/Weinstein” plan said they hope that the wholesale turnover of council members does not scuttle the town’s plan to move forward with the removal of the buildings to widen the channel.

Bruce Taylor, developer and owner of two buildings targeted for demolition, said he is hopeful that Ball and the new five-member council will retain the plan to purchase and demolish the structures — including Caplan’s Department Store, a building that has been in his family since 1895. “My family has been part of the development of Ellicott City for five generations; let’s all work together so that future generations can safely enjoy this national treasure.”

Taylor said the current plan “achieves the best possible result” under the time and budget constraints and allows for treatment of the remaining buildings to keep them as dry as possible, while reducing the force and speed of flood waters in town by over 50 percent.

Ball says he is committed to finding a resolution that works for everyone involved, but he is not certain that the best plan is in place.

“The people of Ellicott City are at the top of my mind and have a seat at my table,” said Ball. “You have waited long enough. The campaign is over and now it is time to heal.”

This article was published by the following News Services:

Washington Post – November 13, 2018

San Francisco Chronicle – November 13, 2018

US News & World Report – November 13, 2018

The Chicago Tribune – November 13, 2018

The Miami Herald – November 13, 2018

The Star Telegram – November 13, 2018

The Sacramento Bee – November 13, 2018

The SC State – November 13, 2018

The Frederick News-Post – November 13, 2018

The Wichita Eagle – November 13, 2018

Raleigh News & Observer – November 13, 2018

Howard R. Fletcher is a journalist and podcaster who lives in Silver Spring, MD.  

The Number One 2 Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts,  iTunes, SoundCloud, and Buzzsprout.

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