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The Wilkins Rogers Mills facility in Oella, across the river from historic Ellicott City, is slated to shut down in early 2020. Its the last operating commercial mill in Maryland.
The Wilkins Rogers Mills facility in Oella, across the river from historic Ellicott City, is slated to shut down in early 2020. Its the last operating commercial mill in Maryland. (Jerry Jackson)

With Wilkins-Rogers Inc. shutting down operations at Maryland’s last commercial flour mill early next year, the question of what will become of the 3-acre property on the Patapsco River waterfront is unresolved.

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk has put forward a request for county planners to study the Oella land and reassess its zoning, potentially opening it up for different development than what’s currently permitted under the light manufacturing zoning designation that encompasses most of the mill property.

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“I’m hoping that raising the issue will get some of our planning [staff] and economic development people to take a really careful look at this property,” Quirk said about the request, one of six submitted by his office through the county’s four-year Comprehensive Zoning Map Process.

There’s “a lot of possibility for something really good” there, the Oella Democrat said.

The flour mill has operated on the Patapsco River banks near the Cooper Branch confluent for the past 245 years, the first American flour mill established by the Macgill Milling Co. before eventually changing hands to Wilkins-Rogers in 1969, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.

Quirk floated the idea of considering a planned unit development on the property to “allow for more flexibility. I would love to see some type" of redevelopment of the mill facilities, into perhaps residential apartments, he said.

“We’re interested in preserving the heritage or the story that the flour mill tells,” said Steve Wachs, president of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, a nonprofit that manages the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area and helps preserve the environment and history of the Patapsco River Valley.

Wachs said Heritage Greenway would like to see the flour plant facilities repurposed, and he envisions its silos painted with murals to “capture the essence” and history of that site, once an economic boon to the Baltimore County region as one of the largest-scale milling operations in the late 18th century, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.

“It has potential to be a beautiful site,” Wachs said, adding that its uses could include a museum, light residential or artistic retail space, or more parking to accommodate Ellicott City visitors.

If the parcel is redeveloped, it should “be true to the history of the area,” Wachs said.

“It’s an interesting building architecturally,” said Dave Ferraro, president of the nonprofit Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park. “I think that some sort of residential use could be cool,” but “my hope is … whoever starts steering that project really thinks about public egress.”

Jay Patel, president of the Greater Oella Community Association, said there’s a concern that needs to be considered. “Traffic coming from the highway is gonna be an issue,” he said, adding that road improvements would be needed to reduce congestion if the building were redeveloped for residential use.

Repurposing the mill into residential apartments would follow suit of the redevelopment of Historic Oella Mill, the early-20th century commercial building that caught legal backlash over its conversion to a luxury apartment building.

Recalling that opposition in around 2003, Patel expects the planning process for any flour mill proposal to be just as lengthy and possibly as contentious.

As an Oella resident and a park user, Ferraro said he “would like to see some sort of public conveyance through that project,” connecting Ellicott City to Patapsco State Valley Park.

Patel favors mixed-use development with residential and retail space, or an “art gallery, museum … other stuff so we can attract people into Ellicott City" and the surrounding neighborhood, he said.

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Despite the mill’s location along the watershed, Wachs said runoff has never been a concern during milling operations. Flooding, however, has posed issues in the past.

“I think that there’s already big concerns about flooding in the Ellicott City Valley,” Ferraro said. “How would that be mitigated?”

The mill sits within the Ellicott’s Mills Historic District, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and “confers a measure of protection from harm by federal or state activities,” said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning.

Listing in the National Register does not restrict the actions of private property owners to develop the land, but may open up the property to federal and state tax credits, grants or loans for rehabilitation work, Buck said in an email.

Wilkins-Rogers is seeking to sell the property next year through real estate broker CBRE. A representative said the agency signed a non-disclosure agreement with the flour mill operator and declined to comment.

On July 1, 2020, the land will be valued at $2.285 million, according to state property records.

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