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A preliminary watershed master plan for Old Ellicott City presented Oct. 15 included minimizing flood impacts from the Patapsco River, improving walkability and increasing green space.

Tom McGilloway, principal of Mahan Rykiel Associates, a Baltimore-based architectural firm, offered an update on the development of the Ellicott City watershed master plan, including Ball’s flood mitigation plan, to community members at the George Howard county government building. A draft plan is expected to be released in early 2020.

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The five pillars of the plan are flood mitigation, environmental sustainability, transportation and parking, economic development, and community character and placemaking, which is an optimizing of public space.

Historic Ellicott City resident Bill Withers believes there is “real potential” for the plan to work.

In the wake of two catastrophic floods that devastated the Ellicott City Historic District’s Main Street in 2016 and 2018, Withers, who lives on Fels Lane, has attended flood planning meetings for more than two years. He said the preliminary plan shows “a lot of thought and work.”

Howard County Executive Calvin 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 project, which would not fully prevent flooding, includes razing four buildings on lower Main Street to widen the Tiber River channel and boring a large tunnel parallel to Main Street to divert floodwater cascading into the steep-sided valley on the upper end. His flood mitigation plan was included as part of the preliminary watershed master plan presentation last week.

“A master plan like this is a long-term guiding plan. It is not something that will happen overnight,” McGilloway said.

While Ball’s flood mitigation project will be executed within the next five to seven years, the master plan’s completion will take over 20 years, McGilloway said.

Ball, who spoke at the beginning of the workshop, said the master plan will provide concepts to enhance Ellicott City for the long term.

The plan “builds resilient solutions to keep Ellicott City, a city that is almost 250 years strong, for another 250 years strong,” Ball said.

Some of the concepts McGilloway discussed have not changed much from previous presentations but have been refined.

The master plan will explore ways to minimize flood impacts from the Patapsco River as well as reduce impacts from storm debris, McGilloway said. With news of Wilkins-Rogers Inc.’s plan to close its commercial grain mill in Oella, directly across the river from Old Ellicott City, it becomes possible to explore expanding the community’s floodplain, he said.

Ellicott City business owners talk about rebuilding, while others may decide not to return after the flood. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

One focus of the plan is to increase green space and tree canopy wherever possible under the environmental sustainability framework.

Creating alternatives for residents and visitors to get around the community that don’t include driving will require the master plan to improve the overall walkability and access to sidewalks and paths, McGilloway said.

The plan will look to link nearby neighborhoods to downtown with new bicycle and pedestrian paths while meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Withers said he is “encouraged” to see the plan address the ADA, as it is “hard in a historic district to be ADA-accessible.”

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With parking, planners will explore restricting parking where the flood risk is greatest, short-term parking options and valet parking, McGilloway said. He also discussed the possibility of developing a shuttle system to bring people to Old Ellicott City, which currently has about 900 parking spaces.

With economic development, McGilloway stressed that measures will be taken to ensure that customers and visitors have access to businesses on Main Street during construction. There also will be efforts to draw customers downtown in the meantime.

To enhance community character and placemaking, the plan will look to integrate art wherever possible and establish outdoor spaces with a variety of uses for the public. There will be an effort to connect downtown outdoor spaces, parks, and open areas with sidewalks and paths.

Flood damage on historic Main Street in Ellicott City seen from above.

Earlier this month, the Howard County Council passed two resolutions — not unanimously, however — focused on strengthening development regulations in historic Ellicott City. The resolutions make developers meet higher standards for stormwater management and increase the fee developers pay when land cannot accommodate stormwater facilities.

After Ball’s flood mitigation plan was released in May, some experts said it didn’t adequately address development regulation in the watershed.

The Master Plan Advisory Team will meet Oct. 24 “to discuss reactions to the new and refined concepts.”

As a draft plan is developed, feedback from the advisory team and the public workshops will be considered with a technical evaluation. There will be a survey posted in the near future regarding the presentation as well as an open house about the draft plan in the winter.

The master plan “continues to get better” because of community thoughts and feedback, Ball said.

“Frankly, we were impressed by the thoughtfulness and depth of these comments that will help our city be resilient,” he said.

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