UNION BRIDGE — All the layers of government came together in Union Bridge on Tuesday afternoon, as representatives or staff from town, county, state and the federal governments convened in the middle of a flood plain — a parking lot on Main Street a side-arm ball toss away from Little Pipe Creek. They came together to talk about flooding and what could be done to mitigate, if not stop, it.
Among the solutions: elevating a bridge along Main Street that frequently floods and, more drastic, relocating businesses in the small town out of the floodplain.
County Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, had called the meeting, hopeful of garnering federal support for what he admitted would be a long-term and extensive project.
“If we ran an elevated bridge from the east side of Main Street to Md. 75 where it T’s in,” Bouchat said in an interview. “If we ran it all the way to the railroad track level elevated, it would allow the floodplain to actually work, and the river flow under the road and not cut the town in two.”
There have been times, such as when Tropical Storm Agnes dumped rain on Maryland in 1972, that Little Pipe Creek has so swollen over its banks that businesses were quite literally underwater. The family business of Union Bridge Mayor Perry Jones, Tuck’s Service Center, was in 9 feet of water at the time.
Revitalizing Union Bridge is a strategic goal for Bouchat, and as he told those gathered there Tuesday — which included staff from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Carroll County government, as well as the offices of Democratic U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-District 8 — dealing with the flooding was the key to that goal.
Even though Hurricane Florence is projected to pummel the Carolina coast with its heaviest winds, southern Maryland is still at risk for heavy rains. And even a little bit of rainfall could bring flooding to Carroll County again this weekend.
“Part of the economic forecast into the future for the revitalization and growth of this county is revitalizing Main Street, and until we do that for Union Bridge,” Bouchat said, “nothing is going to change.”
But a solution that would eliminate the risk of all flooding would be a big lift indeed, as county Director Land and Resource Management Tom Devilbiss said in the huddle, likely requiring the exercise of eminent domain and the removal of all businesses in the floodplain, as well as construction of the elevated road Bouchat envisions.
“If you want to get away from the 100-year floods, the ones that do a lot of damage, you gotta get out. We don’t allow building in floodplains anymore in Carroll County: The code doesn’t allow it,” Devilbiss said, noting that historically that was not the case. “When people come to us everyday and say: ‘Why can’t I build a shed here? Why can’t I put this?’ this is why. Because cumulatively, we end up with problems.”
But for some business owners in Union Bridge, it is not the 100-year-floods that they are worried about.
John Tokar owns a Vintage Restorations Limited, an English car restoration service located at the intersection of Main Street and Md. 75, a building with great exposure to Little Pipe Creek. His property takes on water even with an inch of rain, when the ground is saturated as it was during much of 2018, and he would rather focus on that flooding than 100-year flood levels.
“I think people understand that the 100-year flood is something that is not really attainable,” he said. “If we can get down to a 25-year or something, that would be a little bit better. We’re looking for a little relief.”
Tokar is not interested in moving his business.
But it might be possible to significantly mitigate lesser flooding through stormwater facilities and stream restoration, said Carrie Decker, habitat and conservation division restoration specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“There could be streams, wetlands, stormwater, all three, used to help try to mitigate some of the flooding,” she said. “Creating a really nice big wetland there, that would be really cool too and help a lot. It would spread it out more and try to hold some of it.”
That wouldn’t be a perfect solution, Decker noted, as there are still private lands that would need to be somehow acquired to construct wetlands and the existing bridge on Main Street, constructed in 1928 according to Jones, would need to be replaced.
Jones, who also said he would prefer not to move his business, thought efforts to reduce water flowing through the creek in town and replacing the bridge could be a good compromise.
“I think that as far as eliminating the flooding, you’re never going to do that,” he said. “There are things that can be done, stream restoration and stuff. When I was a kid, that stream wasn’t as wide as it is now, but it was a lot deeper. There’s a lot of sediment in the bottom of the stream. Kids used to stand on the bank and dive into the stream to go swimming.”
But even extensive stream restoration could cost a lot of money, more than Union Bridge, Carroll County and Maryland coffers could provide alone.
“The federal government — any government — doesn’t just throw some money at the problem,” said Heather Campbell, a field representative from Cardin’s office. “It’s a matter of what’s feasible, what’s needed, reasonable and what can be done. That’s the first thing we want is to go to the experts.”
Campbell suggested requesting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do a study of the floodplain and evaluate any possible solutions.
Bart Kennedy, community liaison with Van Hollen’s office, concurred, and put the ball in Carroll County’s court to decide what to do next.
“I think the first thing we need is to get a request from the county about what they want done, and that would determine what funds may be available,” Kennedy said. “Depending on what the Corps of Engineers comes back with.”
That was OK with Bouchat, who said he will be evaluating when to take this project before the entire Carroll Board of County Commissioners. The important thing to him, is that things are moving forward — even if slowly.
“I don’t have the knowledge and experience of every one of those people that came together today, but was able to get them in a circle facing one another sharing all their knowledge,” Bouchat said. “I know it’s a long-term plan and this could come to fruition when I am out of office, but at least I can say I helped get it moving.”