Howard County Executive Calvin Ball released a 13-minute, prerecorded video on Wednesday evening, updating residents on the progress made in Ellicott City flood mitigation efforts since he took office in 2018.
The address discussed the status of the Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan, the $140 million plan Ball selected in May 2019 to help limit future flooding in the historic district after departing from former County Executive Allan Kittleman’s proposal. In April 2019, Ball presented five options to the community, ultimately selecting the Safe and Sound plan.
“Once complete, our plan is expected to bring water levels on Main Street down to an average of 3 feet in a 2016-size storm,” Ball said in the video. “Even though some of the projects were already underway, an incredible amount of work remained on those projects, including permitting in all three levels of government, property acquisition, final design, the bid process and construction. For the projects that were not already underway, we had to start from scratch.”
The Safe and Sound plan calls for the boring of a 15-foot-wide tunnel running 1,600 feet and 80 to 100 feet deep along the north side of Main Street from Lot F on Ellicott Mills Road to the Patapsco River. The tunnel, running parallel to Main Street, would divert water cascading into the steep-sided valley during storms.
“When I came into office, I wanted to build upon the progress that had already been made but also see if there was a better way to protect our historic town,” Ball said in the video. “A way that would leave less water on the street and preserve more of the town’s character.”
Ball, who was sworn into office in December 2018, has touted his plan as the way to prevent staggering damage like July 2016 and May 2018, when three people were killed and the historic community was left decimated twice in two years.
Many residents argue the long-term solutions do not address the potential for flooding issues in the meanwhile, such as the Halloween scare of 2019 when heavy rains unexpectedly swept through the town and when Tropical Storm Isaias dumped rain on the Mid-Atlantic in August.
Two weeks after Tropical Storm Isaias, Ball announced five additional flood mitigation projects set to start in old Ellicott City in the next 18 months. At the time, just one of the projects on the county’s Safe and Sound plan has been completed — the Rogers Avenue storm drain improvement. Six months later, the same is true.
The five projects scheduled to start in the next year include: creating a flood mitigation pond at the intersection of Route 40 and Rogers Avenue to increase water retention, retrofitting the existing Quaker Mill Pond on Rogers Avenue, constructing culverts at Maryland Avenue, adding additional culverts to carry the Tiber River under the road at 8534 and 8600 Main St., and creating a berm, or soil barrier, at 8552 Main St.
During the video, Ball announced three of those projects were “close to breaking ground” and are fully funded. These projects include the H-7 dry pond project where construction can break ground in a few months, the Quaker Mill dry pond project which has construction slated to begin this summer, and the Maryland Avenue culvert project which is undergoing permitting.
Ball also highlighted the Safe and Sound website launch in February 2019 and the installation of high-ground access points and gates. He also noted the outdoor tone alert system that was installed to notify residents of impending severe weather events. That alert system has been used twice since it was installed in May 2019.
In the last public meeting before Howard County and the rest of the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Army Corps of Engineers presented its evaluation of the flood mitigation plan and said the county followed a “sound process” in its plans. While the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that oversees flood protection among its missions, did not make an official recommendation to the county, it provided an independent evaluation that the county requested.
The Section 106 process by the corps and the Maryland Department of the Environment, which assesses concerns surrounding historic preservation, has been underway for the past 18 months. It was originally planned to take one year, Ball said in his video, but “the process was heavily set back.”
Ball had previously said he expected approval of the Section 106 permits by the end of 2020.
“The process is very complex because it involves multiple projects and dozens of stakeholders, as well as several regulatory agencies and organizations. We and the corps are being thorough due to the sensitivity of the projects,” said Shaina Hernandez, a senior policy adviser for Ball. “We lost several months because of the pandemic due to a public meeting originally scheduled for May being pushed to September. At this time, we believe there are approximately three to five months left in the process.”
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In early January, the county was selected to apply for Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to finance flood mitigation projects including the north tunnel.
If the county receives the funding, which Ball said in his video he was confident the county would be selected, they can borrow up to 49% of the cost of the Safe and Sound plan. The remaining 51% would be funded by the county and through other sources. The county would not have to repay the loan until construction is complete.
Ball also announced more immediate updates for the Ellicott City community. In the next few weeks, he said the county will replace the temporary asphalt sidewalks in Ellicott City with concrete sidewalks and install a crosswalk on lower Main Street.
In April, the county acquired the last of the 10 Ellicott City properties needed to proceed with the demolition phase of the plan: razing four buildings and tearing down the back portions of another six. Ball said Wednesday the six buildings scheduled for partial demolition will soon be “given new life as we start the renovation process pending the availability of funding.”
In August, Ball said he expected to see demolition of the remaining four buildings before June 30; he did not mention those four in Wednesday’s video.
For the past year and a half, Ball has said that he wants to fully implement the flood plan by 2025, but no timeline has been confirmed.
A previous version of this story misstated when Howard County Executive Calvin Ball presented five Ellicott City flood mitigation plans to the community. He did so in April 2019. The previous version also misspelled Shaina Hernandez's name.