The plan seemed simple: a series of projects to reduce flooding in historic Ellicott City, a town that saw deadly, catastrophic flooding in 2016 and 2018.
The projects included razing 10 buildings on lower Main Street to mitigate the problem. Its estimated $50 million cost was doable over five years, county officials previously said. And it would dramatically decrease the velocity of rushing floodwaters which exceeded 8 feet in years past.
For some, though, the end result — a maximum of 5.5 feet on lower Main Street if the 2016 flood happened again — was not worth the prospect of the community being permanently changed.
“When it comes to the fate of Ellicott City, I personally feel there is no other choice than to fight for the future of our town,” Shelley Davies Wygant wrote in a Facebook group called Let’s Work to Save Historic Ellicott City.
The group served as the digital headquarters of sorts for those opposed to then-Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman’s multimillion-dollar plan, which he made public last August, 71 days before voters would decide whether the Republican would get a second term in office.
“I know many of you feel the same,” wrote Wygant, who lives in Ellicott City. “Remaining silent or being silenced is not an option. Keep the faith — and take heart. There are a lot of very smart, determined, and well-positioned people on our side who may not be saying much publicly but are working their butts off privately to help save our little town.”
The Facebook group, which has more than 1,500 members, was more than just a hub for venting. It was a place for self-professed flood mitigation experts and novices to share old county reports used to devise the plan — including ones that named alternatives to the vigorous demolitions officials were pursuing. The most notable, perhaps, was tunneling.
Under Kittleman, officials considered boring tunnels to ease flooding on Main Street. The option was never fully fleshed out because it was too expensive, would take more than five years to complete and would only be effective if the Patapsco River stayed at a certain level, Mark DeLuca, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, said last fall.
For many in the Facebook group, the tunneling alternative looked like a viable option the county seemingly ignored.
“That’s what you get when you go for a cheapo plan,” Wygant wrote of the remaining water estimated to be left on Main Street after the plan’s completion. “The tunnel bore solution solves it [according to a study that was conducted] and doesn’t call for demolishing anything.”
That wasn’t entirely true.
The notion of demolishing buildings was internally omnipresent for at least two years leading up to the May 2018 flood, according to former Councilman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat who worked closely with experts to devise the plan that would impact his district.
And the plan the county is pursuing under now-County Executive Calvin Ball requires fully razing four buildings at the bottom of lower Main Street and demolishing the back portions of at least five buildings, which is necessary to widen the Tiber channel to stimulate the flow of water. This plan, estimated to cost between $113.5 million and $140.5 million, includes boring a tunnel parallel to Main Street to divert future floodwater on the north side into the Patapsco River.
For months prior to the unveiling, the concept of tunneling seemingly reigned supreme among group members who decried its absence from the Kittleman-Weinstein plan.
“Once they start taking down buildings, they’re not going to stop,” group member Tammy Bean Fultz said in a May interview before Ball announced the new flood plan.
For Fultz, razing buildings with “the stroke of [a] pen” meant turning a historic district full of memories into “Lil Columbia,” a more developed area of the county, she wrote.
“We don’t have the right to turn the town into dust,” she said. “Why would we want to take a wrecking ball to something that has stood the test of time?”
Fultz, who grew up on Main Street, became a fierce critic on social media against options she believed would defame the community forever. She was partial to using memes, GIFs, hashtags and Federal Emergency Management Agency posters to convey her feelings. Her words eventually bubbled into a public forum when then-Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican from Fulton, read aloud a comment by Fultz that bothered him “to no end.”
“Let the stores leave. Let the tourists go home. We will be right here no matter what the county does. Let it become a poor man’s town again,” the Republican read aloud before voting in favor of legislation that partially funded the Kittleman-Weinstein plan, 36 days before Election Day.
“That is just horrible,” Fox said of Fultz’s words. “That’s despicable.”
Fultz, whose family has lived in Ellicott City since 1834, said what Fox “didn't understand is that it was a poor man’s town.”
“We didn’t know we were poor. If something broke, we fixed it. We never asked anyone for help. We just fixed it. It was a community,” said Fultz, who now lives in Ocean City.
After Ball defeated Kittleman in November, prospects for alternative plans brightened.
As a council member, Ball voted against the bills that partially funded the plan because his amendments, which he believed would improve shortfalls, were not included. As county executive-elect, the Democrat quickly raised the tunneling option, saying he wanted to study it more closely.
In April, on the evening before Ball announced the final plan, a Facebook post by Councilwoman Liz Walsh, the Democrat who now represents the historic district, was shared in the group.
In the post, Walsh made clear that she did not “know what the county executive is going to announce tomorrow” as she was not allowed to work with the experts devising the plans. “I do know that — unless tunnels are part of the ‘new’ plan — what’s announced tomorrow will hardly be different than what was announced nine months ago by our predecessors.”
A tunnel was part of the new plan.
And Ball said his proposal allows officials to “move with a sense of urgency,” to “prioritize public safety” and would leave less water on Main Street, in comparison to his predecessor’s plan. The plan reduces floodwater to a maximum of 3 feet, if the 2016 flood were to occur again — 2.5 feet less than his predecessor’s plan.
The tunnel will be 15 feet in diameter, 80 to 100 feet deep and 1,600 feet long, and will run parallel to the north side of Main Street to the Patapsco River.
Its inclusion, along with a fewer number of buildings being completely razed, was praised by many group members including Fultz and Wygant.
The Facebook group’s influence was undeniable, said Christina Allen Page, a resident of the historic district.
“I do think the group helped shaped the opinion of people who went to Main Street for leisure … for the people who aren’t here on a daily basis … I do think it shaped the narrative with them,” she said.
The narrative, she said, was that the Kittleman administration did not value preservation and that there was a “silver bullet” to fix the problem.
“It’s not like we had this urge to see history come down,” Page said, who supported the Kittleman-Weinstein plan. “We just understood the threat. I think the group and Preservation Maryland [a historic preservation nonprofit] helped shape a narrative as well.”
Page cited a September poll that found 74% of Howard residents surveyed supported plans that didn’t require tearing down buildings. That survey was also attached to another poll that found Kittleman had a double-digit lead over Ball in the county executive’s race.
A county spokesman in May did not make Ball available for an interview.
Wygant, one of the group’s moderators, said in a spring interview the group was “a source of information and discussion.” Moderators would remove people who inhibited the overall mission of the group, she said.
Not everyone supported this policy.
This removal and some of the rhetoric often translated into the “repression of dissenting voices,” said the Rev. Anjel Scarborough, a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Rogers Avenue.
They often “shamed” those supportive of the Kittleman-Weinstein plan and sometimes “minimized” the concerns of those who “live in harm’s way by saying they’re traumatized,” she said. “That’s not helpful.”
Last August, Wygant in a post wrote that it “seems many of them had traumatic personal experiences in the floods themselves or had something happen to close friends that has really scarred them emotionally. Total sympathy for that, but that shouldn’t drive plans for the future of Ellicott City.”
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The Facebook group is “motivated by sentiment and emotion,” Scarborough said. “And grief can take some ugly turns. I hope they can move past the anger stage and take a step back and listen to the people who live and work in the danger [zone].”
Nearly a year after Kittleman and Weinstein announced their plan, the group is still active.
Its initial mission — to protect human life and the historic character of Ellicott City — has expanded. Members share articles, opinions on past county practices and footage of flooding impacting towns throughout the world. And though the conversation sometimes deviates into banter about local politics and the implications of Betsy Ross’ flag, moderators like Fultz attempt to keep discussions focused on “local flooding issues ... lives and a town worth saving."
“As we see this issue isn’t just in our beloved little town, but in beloved towns all across the nation," she wrote. "Supporting each other is a great way to not just lend an ear or a shoulder but to also share information and advice. We all love our little towns, let’s support each other in saving our history and our homes.“