Nearly a year after a second deadly flood ravaged historic Ellicott City, the new Howard County executive announced his plan to ease future flooding, proposing to tear down fewer buildings than his predecessor recommended.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball released five options Wednesday that the county is considering now, all of which would require razing at least four buildings on lower Main Street and would come with price tags ranging from $63 million to $175 million.
The preliminary plans would take an estimated four to seven years to complete, but it’s unclear when construction could begin.
Ball said the five options will better protect residents, businesses and visitors, adding that all “proposed options will reduce the amount of potential flood water in Ellicott City as compared to the previously proposed plan.”
In both floods, the first in 2016 and the second last May, rain storms drenched the steep hills above the old mill town, sending torrents of water cascading down into the valley and overwhelming the Tiber channel, which runs through the historic district. In both floods more than 8 feet of water ended up on Main Street.
Ball’s plan replaces one proposed last summer by former County Executive Allan Kittleman that involved tearing down 10 buildings on lower Main Street and faced immediate opposition from historic preservationists and others who feared it would change the town’s character.
Each option proposed by Ball requires tearing down at least four buildings — Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and the building that once housed the Bean Hollow coffee shop.
The four buildings must be removed to install two large culverts under Maryland Avenue to better connect the Tiber channel with the Patapsco River at the foot of Main Street, said Shaina Hernandez, a county senior policy adviser. One option would raze two additional buildings — Tea on the Tiber and Portalli’s.
The county also would remove portions of remaining buildings that constrict the Tiber channel. For example, Ball said, the county will seek to quickly demolish the back portion of Caplan’s that sits above the stream, citing structural stability concerns.
Officials say the solutions presented are the most efficient ways to ensure safety and promote historic preservation.
Each of the five options would reduce the amount of water that ends up on lower Main Street after similar storms but would not completely eliminate flooding, which experts consider impossible. The five options are:
- Plan 1 would demolish four structures (Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), leave an average water depth of 2.7 feet on lower Main Street in a big flood event and would take an estimated six years to complete for $91.5 million. This plan includes several 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 3.2 feet and take an estimated six years to complete for $79.5 million.
- Plan 3 would demolish four structures (Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow), leave an average water depth of 3.6 feet and is estimated to take four years to complete for $63.5 million. 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 2 feet and take an estimated five years to complete for $113.5 million to $140.5 million. This requires boring a 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 1.5 feet and is estimated to take seven years to complete for $136 million to $175 million. This requires boring the tunnel in plan 4 and an additional tunnel from New Cut Road to the Patapsco River.
Ball said the decision on which option to pursue would ultimately be his. He plans to announce a decision by May 15. Officials will host a public meeting May 2 at 7 p.m at Howard High School to receive input on which plan the county should pursue. Residents can also submit testimony online at ecsafeandsound.org.
Howard County currently owns seven buildings on lower Main Street and officials hope to purchase the other three buildings. A spokesman declined to disclose how much the county paid for the properties. A review of state property records shows the county paid $985,000 for Great Panes, $600,000 for Tea on the Tiber and $1.05 million for one of the Johnson buildings.
The county has not identified funding for the multi-year project, but this year it will receive $3.4 million from the state’s capital budget. Legislation filed by Del. Courtney Watson and state Sen. Katie Fry Hester rebooted a program to provide long-term funding for state flood mitigation projects. The bill was written to prioritize historic districts affected by flooding. In the next three fiscal years, the fund will receive $8 million, and Ellicott City would receive the lion’s share, Watson has said.
The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development announced Wednesday it would give $700,000 in additional funding for cleanup and facade projects in Ellicott City.
Nicholas Redding, president of Preservation Maryland, which opposed Kittleman’s plan, declined to take a stance on which option the nonprofit prefers, saying he has not had time to review them. He said he was pleased the number of buildings slated for demolition has been reduced.
“Losing any structure is difficult … from a preservation perspective,” Redding said. “It seems like this has been done with more restraint than the previous plan.”
Don Reuwuer, a local developer and former co-owner of Tea on the Tiber, said he liked the options presented by officials but would prefer a plan that does not require completely razing his former building.
Three months after the flood last May, Kittleman announced his $56.5 million mitigation plan that would raze 10 buildings on lower Main Street and leave an average of 4.1 feet of water in the event of a flood. Preservation Maryland and others immediately objected to the plan, saying it would change the town so much it could lead to its removal from the National Register of Historic Places.
As a county councilman, Ball voted against the bills that partially funded the plan because his proposed amendments, which he believed would address the plan’s shortfalls, were not included. After defeating Kittleman in November, Ball put the brakes on his predecessor’s plan.
Councilwoman Liz Walsh, whose district includes old Ellicott City, said in an email that she liked that county officials are considering the “previously dismissed tunneling option.” The Democrat said she “will be listening to the community and our constituents” and “advocating to extend the temporary prohibition on new construction in the old Ellicott City and Plumtree watersheds.”
Former Councilman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat who represented the historic district until losing his bid for re-election last year, said he hopes one of the plans announced Wednesday would “yield good results,” but they are “in large part a repackaging of what was done before.”
Weinstein said there was always a possibility the county would not raze all 10 buildings. The new plans have “minor differences,” he said, namely including the tunnels as a viable option.
Last year, county officials explored that option and deemed it too expensive, saying it would only be effective if the Patapsco River isn’t too high. Mark DeLuca, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, affirmed the county’s past analysis during Wednesday’s news conference, but said officials determined tunnels could work in the event of a flash flood like those in 2011, 2016 and 2018.
Officials also announced Wednesday a number of locations of higher ground in the town that people could use in the event of a flood. They are in talks with property owners to give the public access to those high points. The county also will provide businesses with signs showing how to access the points.