Ellicott City: Must we destroy this village in order to save it?

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Councilman Jon Weinstein are thinking boldly about how to protect Ellicott City from more devastation like that caused by the two massive floods that have swept through its historic downtown in the last two years. We need that. In a time when climate change makes huge storm events far more likely, we can’t pretend that rebuilding Ellicott City the way it was is anything more than folly.

But we aren’t ready to agree that their plan to demolish about 5 percent of the buildings in the historic downtown is the right one, and we urge county leaders to slow down the process to allow more time for community input and revision. The current plan to handle this matter as an ordinary piece of legislation subject to the same public input any other bill would get is insufficient. The need to do something about Ellicott City flooding is urgent, but not so urgent that it needs to start in December or January. Once those buildings are gone, the character of one of Maryland’s crown jewels will be irrevocably changed. We can’t take that lightly.

There is no easy solution to the risks Ellicott City faces. As hydrology reports commissioned by the county have demonstrated, the geology and topography of the area put it at particular risk for the kind of life- and property-threatening floods we saw in 2016 and 2018. Upstream development hasn’t helped, but the reports concluded that it plays a relatively minor role in exacerbating the torrents of water that flow down Main Street during severe storms. The moratorium on building there that the county adopted after this year’s event was prudent, but making it permanent — or even demolishing structures upstream — wouldn’t solve the problem.

There are other options, including the construction of upstream stormwater retention facilities, and even boring tunnels under the downtown to carry water to the Patapsco. Some projects, conceived after the 2016 flood, are already underway. Messrs. Kittleman and Weinstein say they have considered all of the alternatives to the large-scale demolition, but none of them were sufficient in terms of effectiveness, cost or speed of implementation. Perhaps that’s true, but we have no ability to make an intelligent judgment about it, and neither does the general public, which is a big part of the problem. There has been plenty of discussion during the last two years about flood mitigation in Ellicott City, but this specific proposal represents a shift that has come as a shock to many in Howard County and beyond.

Preservation Maryland, a group that has worked extensively in the community for years and went so far as to open a branch office in Ellicott City for a year after the 2016 flood, has raised some serious concerns about the demolition plan. Among them are questions about whether it would really accomplish as much as its backers claim and whether it might cause other problems, like putting the historic B&O station at the foot of the hill at greater risk. (It’s currently protected by some of the buildings that would be torn down.) The group thinks the plan could even jeopardize Ellicott City’s historical landmark status, which would eliminate many of the tax credits and incentives that make the community economically viable in its current form. The organization’s executive director, Nicholas A. Redding, says he doesn’t discount the possibility that some demolition of buildings might be necessary, but he questions the county’s assertion that alternatives like maintaining the structures under public ownership but opening the first floors to allow water to flow through wouldn’t work. The public needs the opportunity to understand and question the data that led the county to this conclusion.

All this is taking place in an election year in which the county executive is on the ballot and all five council members will be replaced. That’s not the ideal circumstance for deciding on a five-year, $50 million plan with far-reaching implications. Mr. Weinstein is a lame duck, having been defeated in June’s Democratic primary, and Mr. Kittleman is facing a strong challenge from Democratic County Councilman Calvin Ball, who says the community doesn’t have nearly enough information about the plan. The Democratic candidate in the 1st Council District, Liz Walsh, has expressed skepticism about it, and while her Republican opponent, Raj Kathuria, voices support for what he sees as the comprehensive nature of the proposal, he, too, believes it needs to be subject to far more community input before the county moves forward.

Mr. Weinstein points out that the current council has a degree of expertise about Ellicott City flooding that its replacement won’t, which is true. But delaying a vote on this proposal until after the next council (and, potentially, next executive) take office would provide a chance for the people with the most at stake to have a say: the voters.

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