Historic Ellicott City last experienced torrential flooding in May 2018 that left millions in damage and one dead.
Historic Ellicott City last experienced torrential flooding in May 2018 that left millions in damage and one dead. (Jeffrey F. Bill)

The Howard County Council will consider proposals next month to beef up stormwater management standards for new developments in historic Ellicott City.

County Executive Calvin Ball is proposing to require “development to meet higher standards for stormwater management, addressing the short duration, high-intensity storms that caused recent, devastating flooding in 2016 and 2018,” according to a news release.

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The resolution would require stormwater management designs to include responses to the 2016 flood in the Tiber Branch and Plumtree watersheds, which span the historic district. This requirement would apply to all projects, regardless of when a developer received approval for a proposed plan.

Historic Ellicott City has been ravaged by two catastrophic, deadly floods that cost millions of dollars in damage since 2016. In May, Ball unveiled a massive public works project to limit future flooding. The flood 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, will not fully prevent flooding though, just reduce it to a maximum of 3 feet on lower Main Street if a flood on par with the one in 2016 were to occur again.

The situation facing the nationally recognized 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.

After the 2018 storm, the county placed a one-year moratorium on development in historic Ellicott City to give officials time to analyze and give recommendations for new “adequate” runoff regulations to help ease flooding. In June, Ball approved a measure filed by Councilwoman Liz Walsh to extend the moratorium by three months, ending on Oct. 26.

Next month, the County Council also will consider a measure presented by Walsh. The Democrat, whose district includes historic Ellicott City, wants to bar county officials from allowing developers to disturb certain land in portions of the historic district by expanding protections surrounding the buffers around wetlands, steep slopes and all waterways, including man-made streams.

Her measure also would allow the Department of Planning and Zoning to grant waivers for those who wish to install infrastructure that will ease future flooding.

Walsh’s bill would expand historic Ellicott City’s watershed by relabeling it under a state-recognized zone. She also proposes expanding protections for forests. Woods in good condition are widely considered the gold standard of stormwater management, she previously noted.

In a statement, Walsh said she is “delighted" to see Ball proposing intensified stormwater management standards, similar to her legislation. She was critical of Ball’s second resolution that continues to allow developers to pay “fees-in-lieu of compliance,” saying the first proposal to create higher stormwater management standards “can effectively be undone.”

A second resolution filed 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. The fees only will be paid if there are “no viable options to adequately manage stormwater on-site,” according to a news release.

Fees collected by the Department of Planning and Zoning would go toward efforts to reduce flooding in the historic district.

Walsh’s “proposed legislation calls for elimination ‘fees-in-lieu-of compliance,’ not only for stormwater management in the watershed, but also for open space and forest conservation,” she added.

In historic Ellicott City, 31% of the land was developed with no stormwater management requirements. The old Ellicott City watershed’s stormwater management standards currently include the 100-year storm, which means it has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. The town was hit in 2016 and 2018 by a 1,000-year storm, meaning it has a 0.1% chance of happening in a single year. Currently, 5% of the land in Ellicott City is slated for development while 1% remains undeveloped.

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In the past, Walsh has 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. One of her first legislative proposals was to strike the exemption she previously deemed a loophole in the protection of wetlands. Her measure, as intended, failed, but required the Department of Planning and Zoning to track and make public their exemptions in a monthly report.

Throughout August, Walsh has attempted to drum up support for her bill on social media. She has implored the public to submit favorable testimony to her colleagues on the County Council.

The Sierra Club will host a public meeting in the Miller Branch Library from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 29 on how best to submit testimony to the County Council. Walsh will be a guest speaker.

The County Council will host a public hearing at 7 p.m. Sept. 16 in the George Howard Building on both proposals by Walsh and Ball as well as a measure to significantly hike fees on developers to help build schools.

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