The Howard County Council voted on a series of bills and resolutions this week , spanning issues from Ellicott City flooding, calling on the school system to “desegregate” its schools, and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The council voted on two resolutions and a bill focused on strengthening development regulations in historic Ellicott City following two catastrophic floods that ravaged the area since 2016. The council on Oct. 7 approved two resolutions by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, filed on behalf of the Department of Planning and Zoning; a competing bill from Councilwoman Liz Walsh failed to pass.
Ball, a Democrat, unveiled a massive public works project in May that could cost as much as $140 million to ease future flooding in Ellicott City. The plan, which would not fully prevent flooding, includes razing four buildings on lower Main Street to widen the Tiber channel and boring a large tunnel parallel to Main Street to divert cascading floodwater on the north end.
Experts have said the flood plan doesn’t adequately address development regulation in the area.
In July 2018, in the wake of the most recent Ellicott City flood, a moratorium on development in the community’s watershed was put in place. The moratorium expires this month. It had allowed for county officials to analyze flooding challenges to make appropriate proposals.
Filing on behalf of the Department of Planning and Zoning, Ball’s resolutions make developers meet higher standards for stormwater management and increases the fee developers pay when land cannot accommodate stormwater facilities.
The resolutions focused on the Tiber and Plumtree watersheds.
In meeting higher standards, developments will have to “manage short duration, high intensity storms,” according to an Oct. 8 county news release.
“The goal is to provide adequate management for stormwater runoff to help mitigate flooding,” the release states.
A developer will now have to pay $175,000 per acre-foot of water storage instead of the previous $72,000, a move that more than doubles the previous fee.
This fee would be necessary if there are “no viable options to adequately manage stormwater on-site,” the county previously said. All money will go toward flood mitigation efforts, according to the release.
“These resolutions will ensure that developers are building the infrastructure necessary to manage the rainfall from increasingly severe weather,” Ball said in the release.
Walsh’s bill, which failed, had proposed to expand Ellicott City’s watershed under a state-recognized watershed zone. It also looked to prohibit certain disturbances of land in the floodplain.
With her bill, Walsh also wanted to increase protections for steep slopes, buffers around wetlands and all waterways, including man-made streams.
Walsh’s bill failed 3-2, with Councilwoman Deb Jung joining her in favor.
“This is a profound disappointment,” Walsh said Oct. 7.
Walsh said the bill was to “just enforce the laws that we have and make them moderately better. Apparently that is too much of a bite.”
Walsh voted against both of Ball’s resolutions. Jung voted against the stormwater fees resolution with Walsh.
A bill to increase the one-time fee developers pay when building new residential developments was tabled. The funds from the fee would go directly to Howard schools construction costs.
Council Chairwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby, who introduced the bill, moved to table it “for a brief time,” which drew disapproval from Walsh and Jung, who co-sponsored the bill.
The bill looks to increase the one-time fee on new homes from $1.32 per square foot to $6.80 per square foot, a 415% increase.
The increased fee, expected to generate $15 million a year, would help pay for the school system’s renovation, maintenance and construction costs.
By delaying approval of the bill, the council is forgoing between $1.2 million to $2.4 million a month in development fees, according to Walsh.
Walsh said she wanted to enact the current bill and, if needed, “tinker” with it over the next few months.
“We so desperately need [the funds] for school construction projects. That is an undeniable fact that we need that money and we need it now,” Walsh said.
The school board will vote in December on whether to delay a renovation and addition at Hammond High School and a replacement building for Talbott Springs Elementary School due to funding levels. Both projects have been delayed for years due to funding issues.
Rigby said there are outstanding legal questions that need to be addressed.
“I don’t think anyone is happy about leaving money on the table, but I want to pass something that is sound and sensible,” Rigby said.
In other school business, a resolution calling on the school system to “desegregate” its schools by socioeconomic status during its ongoing redistricting process passed 4-1. Councilman David Yungmann, the lone Republican on the council, voted against the resolution.
“The main reason why I’m voting the way I am is we still haven’t seen anything in my opinion to redistrict the schools for this reason,” Yungmann said during the vote.
The resolution requests the school system “draft, approve and implement a lawful multi-year integration plan,” ensuring all schools are integrated by socioeconomic factors.
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Rigby said she “hope[s] the resolution provides a meaningful conversation about integration.”
The establishment of a task force to examine the demographic and socioeconomic conditions within the school system and the county housing policies and regulations was taken out of the approved resolution.
The council also unanimously approved Ball’s resolution to increase biking and pedestrian infrastructure in the county.
Called Complete Streets, the resolution looks to create “streets where people of all ages and abilities feel safe walking, biking, driving, and utilizing public transportation,” Ball said in a news release.
Under the resolution, designs for new developments and mass transit projects would not allow for developers to jeopardize the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians by prioritizing drivers.
To be considered exempt from the policy, developers would have to receive approval from the county’s Department of Public Works, Department of Planning and Zoning, and the Office of Transportation.
There are 108 miles of shared-use pathways for bicyclists and walkers within county lines, 90 of which are in Columbia.