Howard County officials on Thursday night hosted a meeting to further explain their proposals to mitigate flooding in historic Ellicott City, an old mill town that has had two deadly floods since 2016.
The storm last May came when rain drenched the surrounding steep hills, sending torrents of water cascading into the valley and overwhelming the Tiber River, which runs through the historic district. In both floods more than 8 feet of water ended up on Main Street.
Last August, then-County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed an estimated five-year, $50 million plan that would raze 10 buildings on lower Main Street. The move drew condemnation from preservationists who said demolition could lead to the town’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places.
The plan was halted after the Republican lost his bid for re-election in November to Democrat Calvin Ball.
Under Ball, county engineers modeled the plans based on both storms. Hydraulically, the 2016 storm was worse, according to Mark DeLuca, deputy director of the Department of Public Works. The water-depth numbers previously reported was the average depth between Caplan’s and Maryland Avenue.
Kittleman’s plan was based on the 2016 figures and would leave a maximum average of 5.5 feet of water on lower Main Street.
Ball has presented five proposals.
The three cheapest range from $63 million to $91.5 million and would take four to six years to complete. They propose razing at least four buildings and would leave between 4 feet and 5 feet of average water depth on lower Main Street, in the event of an event similar to the 2016 flood.
The two most expensive proposals cost between $113.5 million and $175 million and would take five to seven years to complete. They would raze four buildings and leave an average maximum of 2 feet to 3 feet of water on lower Main Street, in the event of a flood like that in 2016.
Officials say the solutions presented are the most efficient ways to ensure safety and promote historic preservation. None completely eliminate flooding, which experts consider impossible.
When Ball took office last year, he directed engineers to devise plans that prioritize historic preservation and minimize flooding, and to not think of financial limitations.
Though the county has picked up $4.1 million in state funding and is using the $17 million awarded by the County Council last year, Ball in April acknowledged the county has yet to find funding for mitigation efforts. If additional outside funding is not secured, the county will have to allocate money accrued from revenues or in bonds. This could result in a heavy burden as revenue streams are in danger of falling short of the county’s spending, a government report found.
To date, the county has spent $12.1 million on the 2018 Ellicott City flood and has been reimbursed been $3.2 million by federal agencies, according to Ball spokesman Scott Peterson. This figure is expected to increase as more repairs are completed and reimbursements move through the pipeline, Peterson said.
Ball has proposed $15 million for next fiscal year.
The county owns seven of the 10 buildings once targeted for demolition. Peterson declined to disclose how much the county paid for building acquisitions. A review of state property records shows the county paid $985,000 for Great Panes, $600,000 for Tea on the Tiber, $1.05 million for one of the Johnson buildings, $1.55 million for Shoemakers and $1.21 million for Miss Fit.
Officials plan to demolish the back portions of the buildings partially located above the Tiber channel. The county plans to retain the facades.
Officials have said that using tunnels to mitigate flooding would be effective only if the Patapsco River stays at a certain level, which would likely not happen if a “bottom-up storm” like the 1972 Agnes flood occurs.
The Thursday meeting was attended by former Councilman Jon Weinstein and Kittleman, both of whom proposed the five-year plan last year.
Kittleman in an interview said he came to the meeting as a community member to “show support” for the town.
“I really care about what’s happening in Ellicott City,” said the Republican, who now works as a commissioner on the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.
Residents during the meeting expressed concerns for funding, feasibility and safety.
Andy Funk, whose Main Street offices were destroyed in both floods, expressed concern for keeping the “skinny facades” the county hopes to preserve.
“Why in anyone’s right mind would [someone] move into a building” that was once slated for demolition, Funk asked. “Shoemakers is a beautiful building. But it’s not historic.”
In response to Funk, Ball said he “personally” believes people come to Main Street for a variety of reasons and that “part of that is the character and the culture [of Main Street].”
“I want to retain as much as possible while keeping us safe as possible. … It’s not just a matter of which ones have been registered historic. … It’s about how much of Ellicott City can we retain while keeping us safe,” he added.
The numbers given at the Thursday meeting reflect the amount of water expected to be left on lower Main Street in the event of a flood like the one in May 2016. All options, except the third, dramatically reduce the water’s velocity:
» Plan 1 would demolish four structures (Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), would drop to 4 feet of water on lower Main Street in the event of a 2016 flood and would take an estimated six years and $91.5 million to complete. This plan includes four retention ponds higher in watershed.
» Plan 2 would demolish six structures (Tea on the Tiber, Portalli's, Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), leave an average water depth of 4 feet on lower Main Street in the event of a 2016 flood and take an estimated six years and $79.5 million to complete.
» Plan 3 would demolish four structures (Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), leave an average water depth of 4-5 feet on lower Main Street in the event of a 2016 flood and is estimated to take four years and $63.5 million to complete. This plan involves fewer retention ponds.
» Plan 4 would demolish four structures (Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), leave an average water depth of 3 feet on lower Main Street in the event of a 2016 flood and take an estimated five years and $113.5 million to $140.5 million to complete. This requires boring a 15- foot-in-diameter, 80- to-100-foot-deep tunnel from Lot F off Ellicott Mills Drive to the Patapsco River.
» Plan 5 would demolish four structures (Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), leave an average water depth of 2-3 feet on lower Main Street in the event of a 2016 flood and take an estimated seven years and $136 million to $175 million to complete. This requires boring the tunnel in Plan 4 and a 10-foot-in-diameter tunnel from New Cut Road to the Patapsco River.
The county will receive public input online at ecsafeandsound.org.
Ball is expected to announce which plan the county will adopt by May 15.