A Howard County Councilwoman continues to use Facebook and Twitter to galvanize support for her development regulation reform proposal ahead of a Monday hearing on Ellicott City flood mitigation plans.
The County Council on Monday will hear separate, competing proposals from Councilwoman Liz Walsh and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on behalf of the Department and Planning and Zoning that would alter land-use regulations to ease future flooding in the historic district.
The old mill town has been ravaged by two catastrophic and deadly floods that cost millions of dollars in damage since 2016.
“Do you see what I see when you drive around Howard County," Walsh asks in a Facebook video. "When you pass a development or construction site, do you wonder ... how did that thing get approved?” The floods are “stark warnings that we need to take strong action to prevent further irreparable harm to our local environment. ... We can no longer plan to do business as usual here in Howard County.”
Earlier this summer, Walsh proposed a bill that would expand the historic town’s watershed by relabeling it under a state-recognized watershed zone.
The proposal would also bardevelopers from disturbing parts of historic district and would expand protections for buffers around wetlands, steep slopes and all waterways, including man-made streams. She also proposes expanding protections for forests. Woods in good condition are widely considered the gold standard of stormwater management, she previously noted.
In May, Ball unveiled a massive public works project to limit future flooding. His plan includes boring a large tunnel parallel to Main Street to divert cascading floodwater on the north end and fully raze four buildings to widen the Tiber channel.
This project, which could cost as much as $140 million, would not fully prevent flooding, but would instead reduce it to a maximum of 3 feet on lower Main Street if a flood on par with the one in 2016 occurs again.
The situation facing the historic district cannot solely be solved with Ball’s flood plan, experts say. Decades of inadequate stormwater management requirements and the natural topography of the community are to blame for disastrous flooding, experts say. With the 2017 National Climate Assessment projecting heavier rains for the Northeast, Ellicott City could see similar floods in the future.
A moratorium that currently bars the county from authorizing development in the watershed gave officials time to analyze the flooding challenges facing the town and to make appropriate proposals.
At the request of the Department of Planning and Zoning, Ball is proposing to require a “development to meet higher standards for stormwater management, addressing the short duration, high-intensity storms that caused recent, devastating flooding in 2016 and 2018."
In an internal memo submitted to the County Council, Department of Planning and Zoning director Valdis Lazdins said the heightened standards would become the rule of thumb. On “rare occasions” where it would be “impossible from an engineering or site layout perspective," certain lower standards would be prioritized, including a variety of 100-year storm standards.
Walsh says in the video that county procedures “today still allow developers to obtain waivers or just pay fees to get around sound environmental law already on the books."
Walsh has in the past been critical of the Department of Planning and Zoning, saying their “long, entrenched practices” waive “basic environmental regulations,” including those that allow developers to disturb stream buffers, remove old trees and clear scenic buffers.
A second resolution proposed by Ball would increase the fee developers pay when land cannot accommodate stormwater management facilities on-site because of engineering constraints. The county would raise the fee from $72,000 per acre-foot of water storage to $175,000, a 143% increase if “no viable options to adequately manage stormwater on-site,” a press release said.
In a second internal memo submitted for testimony, Lazdins notes that this fee has not been increased since the mid-1990s. The fee would go towards county efforts to ease flooding in the area, officials previously said.
Testimony submitted online by community members for Walsh’s bill has been largely supportive, though the Howard County Association of Realtors opposes Walsh’s measures.
Dan lampieri, the group’s president, described Walsh’s proposal as having “profound impacts both on new development and on existing properties” in the watershed, adding that Walsh has not supplied substantial information to explain the basis of her proposal.
“While HCAR opposes moving forward with [her proposal] as currently written, there are alternative measures available to the Council which would both show a commitment to preventing future catastrophic flooding and place the County on more sound legal footing,” lampieri wrote, urging Walsh’s colleagues to not support her proposal.
In the event that neither Ball’s nor Walsh’s proposals are approved, Walsh has filed legislation that would for a third time extend a moratorium for three months.
“We can do this," Walsh said in her Facebook video. "We can do this right and we can do this right now. This watershed can’t wait.”
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The County Council will meet on Monday at 7 p.m. for a hearing on these proposals and other measures in the George Howard Building. Community members can submit testimony before the hearing to email@example.com.