Executive, council candidates focus on historic district in Ellicott City forum

Parking and flood mitigation in old Ellicott City were the hot topics Thursday night at a historic district-centric candidate forum hosted by the Ellicott City Partnership.

The partnership, previously known as the Ellicott City Historic District Partnership -- a name that proved to be too much of a mouthful and was recently shortened -- is focused on revitalizing the old town. Perhaps as a reminder of Ellicott City's rich history, the groups held its forum in the Howard County Historical Society's museum on Court Avenue.


All four candidates who spoke at the forum, which featured both county executive candidates and both candidates for Council District 1, said reducing the impact of flooding on the old town would be a top priority.

Ellicott City, which faced millions of dollars in damage three years ago as a result of flooding from Tropical Storm Lee, still has stretches of streams clogged by debris as well as aging culverts and retaining walls that threaten to crumble under heavy rains, putting the old town in danger.


Democratic county executive candidate Courtney Watson, who represents Ellicott City on the County Council, called the age of Ellicott City's infrastructure "one of the most important concerns and challenges we have.

"I believe we may have hidden challenges we're not aware of," she added. Watson's solution would be to support a study to identify aging infrastructure and then develop a long-term plan for its improvement. She said that would include "cleaning out streams."

Local business owner Jon Weinstein, a Democrat running to take Watson's place on the council, said he had walked along the Tiber River with local residents and was "shocked at the amount of damage that still exists."

His solution would be to create flood working groups, "with emphasis on working.


"We've done the studies; now we need to focus on projects," he said. Weinstein said he would also seek out state and federal funds to aid in reducing the threat of future floods: "We need to start taking action. The funding should be there and we need to work through that."

Weinstein said he'd also look into levying an impact fee on developers who build in the historic district to "go toward paying for flood mitigation of other needed improvements."

Both Republican candidates said they, too, had walked the stream banks and had seen the debris.

Kevin Forrest Schmidt, the Republican candidate for Council District 1, tied prioritizing flood funding to his overall message of paring down on the county's spending. He said the 10-year plan he'd like to see to address flooding would "require tremendous investment.

"That's why we need to be fiscally disciplined," he said. "We need to get back to the basics, and this is the basics."

Schmidt said he'd also factor development upstream into flood planning.

Republican county executive candidate Allan Kittleman criticized the current administration's efforts to alleviate flooding in the historic district, pointing to a 2002 general plan for Ellicott City that he said highlighted flooding as a major concern.

"Things haven't gotten better," he said. "The question is, do you continue on the same path and have nothing happen, or do you get some new ideas, new action, new energy?"

Kittleman also pointed to parking as an issue identified a decade ago. The state senator from West Friendship said the county needs to get rid of the parking meters on Main Street, which have been unpopular among some merchants and their customers.

He said he'd rather focus on building a parking garage in Parking Lot F, near the intersection of Ellicott Mills Drive and Main Street. His vision, he added, is for a more "walkable, bikable" Main Street: "I would like us to be focusing on providing parking off the street so people can use the sidewalks better."

Watson agreed the current parking meter system has had some problems, but she pointed to a study analyzing the impact of the meters on Main Street businesses, which still posted an 11 percent increase in revenue over the first year the meters were installed.

"Economic data supports parking meters on Main Street because it turns over the spaces," she said, but she acknowledged many people had had trouble with the system, which does not offer paper tickets.

"I will pledge as county executive to replace those meters within the first 100 days of my administration" to a system that prints paper tickets for people parking along the street, she said.

Schmidt criticized the county for installing what he said was a parking system that doesn't work.

"Why do we have to re-do that? Did we not have that discussion on the front end?" he asked. Like Kittleman, he favors building a garage in Lot F.

Weinstein declined to focus on parking, saying it had "already been talked about."

All four candidates said they looked forward to Ellicott City being designated a Main Street Maryland community, which would open the historic district to additional funding opportunities. The county put in an application for the program earlier this year.

Watson said she'd also like to see the old town become an arts and entertainment district, similar to downtown Frederick.

And she said she'd like to help grow business on Main Street with the help of a liaison from the county's Economic Development Authority. Weinstein agreed, noting he had helped pitch the idea as a member of the Ellicott City Partnership's Economic Restructuring Committee.

And, he added, "a personal goal of mine is that we reclaim the movie theater on Main Street," so that residents can once again watch films in the old town.

Kittleman said he'd like to focus on implementing tax credits that have been approved for facade work on Main Street as well as for improvements to historical properties. As for the plan, currently underway, to build a staircase from Main Street to the Circuit Court House on the hill above, "I don't think that's a good use of our money," he said.

All agreed the historic district needs to remain a focus for both the council and the executive.

"We all love historic Ellicott City because it is the essence of Main Street, U.S.A.," said Schmidt. Weinstein agreed.

"This is a residential, livable community. It's critical to focus on that vision."

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