A majority of Howard County residents support alternative ways to mitigate Ellicott City flooding that do not include removing buildings from the historic town center, according to a new poll financed by a nonprofit preservation group.
The Howard County Voter Poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy for Preservation Maryland, found that 74 percent of residents surveyed would support plans that don’t require tearing down buildings — an option that is under consideration by the County Council. Removing buildings would create an open space to deepen and expand the channel for the Tiber River, slowing the flow of floodwaters.
Three months after a May 27 flood caused millions in damage, County Executive Allan Kittleman and Councilman Jon Weinstein proposed demolishing buildings as part of a five-year flood-control plan.
Kittleman and Weinstein issued a statement hours after the poll was released Tuesday, noting “it is hard to take seriously a five-minute poll that tries to explain years of study, analysis and dozens of scenarios that were considered.”
“While we appreciate Preservation Maryland’s mission, our mission first and foremost is to protect lives,” the statement said. “We will make our decision because it’s the best way to do that and to ensure a vibrant and thriving Ellicott City for centuries to come.”
The poll also found that 43 percent of respondents do not believe the county should spend $50 million on a plan that would likely leave 4 to 6 feet of water during a catastrophic flood. The five-year plan was modeled on a deadly 2016 flood that pushed 6 to 8 feet of water onto lower Main Street. The plan also includes removing two buildings from the middle of Main Street to widen the Hudson River bend and razing seven residential buildings to expand a channel on the western side of the historic district that is prone to flooding.
Thirty-six percent of those surveyed do not believe the county should divert money from the county’s contingency fund, technology infrastructure upgrades, construction of a fire station on Route 1 and improvements to the East Columbia Library Athletic Field to pay for the project.
The county anticipates between $20 million and $30 million in state and federal funding for the $50 million plan, according to Paul Milton, an aide to the county executive. The county plans to submit data to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for “reimbursement of restoration projects, as well as preparing to submit for several grant opportunities,” said Milton in an email.
“If our experience with the July 2016 flood is any indication, the reimbursement process will be on-going for several years,” Milton wrote. “At the same time, County Executive Kittleman and others have had multiple conversations with state officials and are optimistic some funding could be awarded as early as this fiscal year with continuing discussions about future years.”
The poll’s findings are in contrast with comments during a County Council hearing last week where an overwhelming number of residents urged council members to back bills that would fund the five-year flood mitigation plan.
“Our primary concern is life safety in the historic district,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland.
“The plan that’s being presented changes the very fabric and nature of a historic community and still leaves 4 to 6 feet of water on Main Street during a flood. That’s not safe,” he said. Preservation Maryland represents nearly 500 Howard County donors and supporters, he said.
Preservation Maryland in August proposed creating a state park instead of removing the 10 buildings from lower Main Street. The buildings could be “cleared of internal features prone to flood damage, and flood resistant exhibits or panels could be installed to create a compelling tourism asset and education experience to market,” said the special report. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed supported exploring this plan, the poll said.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation last week gave the Baltimore-based nonprofit a $5,000 grant for an engineer to review the current flood mitigation plans. The group plans to see the review before council members vote on the funding plan on are expected Oct. 1.
The five-year plan also requires approval from the county’s Historic Preservation Commission and county executive.
Engineering firm McCormick Taylor in a 2016 study proposed creating two tunnels in the historic district to redirect water away from downtown. Redding in an interview said this plan should be explored.
Deputy Director of Public Works Mark DeLuca said during a Monday work session this plan is only effective when the Patapsco River stays at a low level.
“[This plan] was so much more expensive and so much more uncertain and would take so much more time,” said DeLuca.
The Mason Dixon survey was conducted between Sept. 17 and Sept. 19 and was based on 625 random phone interviews with registered voters — all of whom said they were likely to vote in the November election. Pollsters said the margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.