Proposal would make it easier for Howard to demolish historic Ellicott City buildings

A hurdle facing Howard County before it can remove 10 buildings in historic Ellicott City to lessen flooding could be lowered if a bill introduced by Councilman Jon Weinstein becomes law.

The legislation would require the county’s Historic Preservation Commission to approve requests to alter or demolish historic structures if the work would provide protection against “threats to public safety.”

Weinstein, who in August introduced a $50 million flood mitigation plan with County Executive Allan Kittleman, said the bill adds the public-safety stipulation for the commission to consider.

Opponents fear it would allow the county and citizens to circumvent the processes of the advisory commission.

Currently, the commission is required to “give consideration to” the significance of the structure, its relationship to the surrounding area and compatibility with the proposed exterior design when reviewing plans to alter, move or demolish historic structures.

In a closed-door session Thursday night, commission members discussed the legal implications of the proposal.

“We have some concerns about the language [of the bill],” said Chairman Allan Shad, who declined to elaborate.

The commission has yet to take an official stance on the bill and is exploring sending a letter or representative to testify at a County Council hearing on Oct. 15.

The bill was introduced Monday, the same day the council approved partial funding for the plan that would raze 19 buildings in Ellicott City to mitigate flooding.

“The county is subject to the decisions of the Historic Preservation Commission,” said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who voted in favor of funding and co-sponsored the bill. “There’s a fear that all of this will rush, and we’ll see buildings coming down next week, but that’s not the case.”

The process will take months. Plans require approvals from the county executive, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of the Environment and Historic Preservation Commission.

Preservation Maryland is concerned that this bill “would effectively turn the commission into a rubber stamp for the demolition plan,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of the Baltimore-based nonprofit that opposes plans to tear down buildings.

“Why even have an independent body if you’re telling them how they have to decide? It seems to go against the very tenants of citizen involvement in county governance,” Redding said.

“We want the body to listen to the evidence and make their own determinations,” said Weinstein, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City. He said the commission would define public safety. “This bill is not an end-around the law.”

Redding said the “vague” nature of the bill is of concern because “there is no definition of what public safety is.”

The county’s plan is modeled on a deadly 2016 flood that pushed more than 8 feet of water onto lower Main Street in a matter of minutes after a line of thunderstorms dumped 6 inches of rain in the area. The plan is designed to decrease water speed in riverbeds and reduce floodwaters in a similar storm to 4 to 6 feet.

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