Ellicott City business owners talk about rebuilding, while others may decide not to return after the flood. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is saying a lawmaker’s proposal to overhaul the regulation of development in historic Ellicott City could negatively affect the service it provides to residents.
Seeking to address area development in the wake of two catastrophic floods since 2016, Howard County Councilwoman Liz Walsh, of Ellicott City, wants to increase protections for forests, buffers around wetlands, steep slopes and all waterways, including man-made streams. It’s this part of the bill that BGE said would hinder its ability to provide coverage.
In May, County Executive Calvin Ball unveiled a series of projects that could cost as much as $140 million to address anticipated future large storms. While the projects are designed to reduce exposure to future floodwaters, they do not adequately address the regulation of development in an area topographically vulnerable to damage from such intense storms, experts have said.
A moratorium on new development put in place in the wake of the May 2018 flood gave the Department of Planning and Zoning time to study past practices and make recommendations for land-use regulation in the watershed. The County Council is considering competing measures, one from Walsh and two from Ball, based on the department’s recommendations.
“Trees growing into or near electric power lines often cause hazards and risk the reliability of the electricity system,” BGE external affairs manager Megan Eaves said Monday night at a County Council legislative public hearing. “Limiting tree removal would hinder BGE’s ability to meet the electric service and reliability standards set in state law.”
Maryland law bars localities from enacting legislation that impedes the electric company’s work, Eaves noted. Walsh requested BGE officials come to Friday’s council work session to further explain their concerns.
Walsh’s proposal, which drew dozens of online testimonials with a large number of residents prepared to testify on its behalf, is supported by the Howard County Bird Club and the Association of State Floodplain Managers. The Wisconsin-based association said Walsh’s bill successfully addresses flooding in the historic district by using a “combination of approaches and techniques to minimize the increase of flood risk to properties and lives.”
Along with BGE, Walsh’s plan faced strong opposition from lobbyists and developers.
In testimony submitted online, Howard County Chamber of Commerce Director Leonardo McClarty said Walsh’s proposal fails to “balance environmental concerns with business and marketplace realities.” The bill, which would expand Ellicott City’s watershed by relabeling it under a state-recognized watershed zone, “prohibits an inordinate amount of commercial and residential activities thereby impacting land usage and redevelopment in Route 1” in Elkridge and “lessens the value of land because of the increase percentage of land now dedicated to easements,” McClarty wrote.
Walsh, a Democrat, downplayed the objections, stressing the dangers of intense storms.
"Once again, the building lobby has mobilized in force with its doomsday threats,” Walsh said. But the community has “already lived through doomsday. Twice. We can’t do it again.”
Local developer Bruce Taylor described Walsh’s bill as “flawed to its core” and said it “overreaches on all fronts” and would make development and improvement in Ellicott City “impossible” and “unaffordable.”
Thirty-one percent of land in the watershed was developed with no stormwater regulation, county officials previously said. Presently, development must meet standards that would withstand a 100-year storm — a storm with a rainfall total that has a 1% probability of occurring in Ellicott City in that year. The storm that dropped more than 6 inches of rain — much of it in less than 90 minutes — on July 30, 2016, and the storms that dumped a total of 15 inches of rain on May 27, 2018, were considered 1,000-year storms.
Department of Planning and Zoning standards in Ball’s proposals would require developers to build in a way that anticipates 1,000-year storms.
“That’s why development is part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Taylor said.
Developers criticized the proposed 1,000-year level standard.
Rod Hart, president of the Maryland division of Beazer Homes USA, a construction company, said a 79-unit project designed for Montgomery Road is currently subject to the 100-year standard and cost developers $400,000. He said increasing it to the 1,000-year standard would cost an additional $350,000.
“That’s devastating,” Hart said. “I understand that there is little sympathy for builders, but it is important that you know the consequences of government actions when they relate to projects like this," Hart said, adding the project would not "impact the safety” of Ellicott City.
In a statement Tuesday morning, Ball said, “As a county, we must ensure that developers pay their fair share and provide the infrastructure necessary to mitigate negative environmental and public safety impacts. The resolutions we put forth are narrowly focused on these goals, allowing them to be implemented quickly before the expiration of the existing moratorium without many unintended negative consequences.”
Ball also proposes increasing 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 news release said.
Angelica Bailey, vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Builder Association, said the fee is already difficult for its members to pay. Many residents praised the county for proposing to raise the fee, which has not been increased since the mid-1990s.
In the event neither proposal passes, Walsh has filed legislation to extend the moratorium on approving permits for development, which is set to end in October, an additional three months from the initial moratorium. Right now, 34 projects are on hold mostly because of the moratorium. At least four projects are on hold because of school overcapacity.
In an email submitted to the County Council, planning and zoning Director Val Lazdins said another “short-term extension of the moratorium ... would have a minimal fiscal impact.” Lazdins noted, though, that with “continued extensions, short term turns into long term and this could result in fiscal impacts over time.”
The moratorium was established in July 2018, and a second three-month extension would mean development would be halted until January.
The County Council will continue hearing testimony on Walsh’s bill at a later date. On Wednesday night at the George Howard Building, it will hear testimony on a measure that would significantly increase impact fees.