New report calls on Howard to pause plans to raze historic Ellicott City buildings

A nonprofit that opposes Howard County’s five-year flood mitigation plan has released a third-party engineering report that implores the county to consider alternatives to razing buildings in flood-prone Ellicott City.

County Executive Allan Kittleman this week signed legislation to partially fund a $50 million project to remove 13 buildings from the historic downtown to help protect the area from damage caused by major floods.

The new report, conducted by Simpson Gumpertz & Heger for Preservation Maryland, said the county has not “fully vetted” flood mitigation strategies that address safety and preserving the historic town.

The firm recommends the county enlist Preservation Maryland and Maryland Historic Trust to review the plan’s social and financial implications and “evaluate the feasibility and cost of the alternate tunnel bores.”

The report also encourages the county to initiate a “program to structurally reinforce and wet floodproof historic buildings in the floodplain” and “explore the viability of implementing structural reinforcing elements in tandem with wet floodproofing measures to create Open First-Floor concepts within the ten buildings proposed for demolition.”

The third-party engineering report did not estimate costs for the various proposals.

Under the open first-floor model, the county would acquire and maintain the 10 buildings on lower Main Street and allow the first floor to be an open space for water to run through during an intense storm. “Access to second floors would be provided to create residential, living and/or office opportunities,” the third-party report said.

A 2016 hydrology and hydraulic study suggested the county create two tunnels in the historic district to redirect water away from downtown. Officials said this plan is only effective when the Patapsco River stays at a low level.

The new engineering report encouraged the county to model its plan on a May flood rather than the 2016 flood, which at the time was dubbed a “1,000-year rain storm” by experts.

The deadly 2016 flood pushed more than 8 feet of water onto lower Main Street. The current plan is designed to reduce the amount of floodwater in a similar storm to 4 to 6 feet and dramatically decrease the water speed.

“Before you make any irreversible decision, it’s just common sense to obtain a second opinion,” Nicholas Redding, executive director of the Baltimore-based nonprofit, said in a statement. “We expect this report will significantly change the conversation moving forward.”

The county was working on a long-term flood mitigation plan based on the 2016 study conducted by McCormick-Taylor, a civil engineering and consulting firm, when the May storm hit.

“We based our plan on the years of data and scientific analysis compiled by McCormick-Taylor, a firm which has had significant, long-term experience working in the Ellicott City watershed,” Kittleman said in a statement.“The McCormick-Taylor report is detailed and examined several flood mitigation options before reaching their conclusion,” said Kittleman.

Kittleman in his statement noted an “unsolicited review” from a Maryland-engineering firm that praises the county’s five-year plan.

“Although there are always numerous potential solutions to a problem with public safety as the leading concern it was our belief that anything that could be done to open the channel and remove obstructions from the waterway would provide the most expedient and cost-effective means of addressing the issue,” Nathan Bell, the CEO of KCI Technologies, said in a letter.

“Realizing there may be various methods to accomplish an unobstructed open channel, and only speaking from [an] engineering viewpoint, the current proposal will accomplish this goal,” Bell said.

​​​​​​Kittleman and Councilman Jon Weinstein in August originally announced the county planned to raze 19 buildings in historic Ellicott City. The county now plans to acquire 13 buildings.

The county plans to acquire the buildings— 10 on lower Main Street, one on upper Main Street and two in the Valley Mede neighbborhood — at “pre-flood appraisal values,” according to Andrew Barth, a Kittleman spokesman who said it was “the right thing to do” because the property owners no longer have the financial or personal resources to rebuild. The acquisition will cost $2,791,734.

The county plans to request $20 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to reimburse parts of the plan, according to Barth. The plan needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of the Environment and Howard’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Weinstein has introduced a bill that would require the Historic Preservation Commission to approve proposals to alter or demolish historic structures if the work would provide protection against “threats to public safety.”

That bill is opposed by Preservation Maryland which fears it would “establish a dangerous precedent” and allow the county to circumvent the independent processes of the advisory commission.

The council will hold hearings on the bill Oct. 15.

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