Howard pulls offer on building needed for Ellicott City flood plan, leaving open possibility of eminent domain

Discoveries owner Sally Fox Tennant stands outside her store in Ellicott City in 2017.
Discoveries owner Sally Fox Tennant stands outside her store in Ellicott City in 2017. (Baltimore Sun Media Group file)

Howard County officials have rescinded an offer to purchase a key property needed to complete the plan to reduce future flooding in historic Ellicott City — leaving open the possibility of seizing the property through eminent domain.

Last month, county officials unveiled a mitigation plan that could cost as much as $140 million in response to two deadly, catastrophic floods since 2016. The multi-year plan by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball includes boring a tunnel just north of town and fully razing four buildings on lower Main Street to widen the Tiber channel.


One of the buildings needed to complete the project is owned by Sally Tennant, who rejected the county’s purchase offer. The building housed Tennant’s crafts shop Discoveries, which she closed last week.

On June 14, the county sent Tennant a letter formally rescinding its offer.

Tennant’s building is one of four located directly above the Tiber channel, and officials previously said razing it is essential to the plan.

An early purchase figure discussed was $595,000, according to Tennant’s attorney, Joseph Suntum.That price was based on an initial appraisal, which did not include the second floor of Tennant’s building because the appraiser was not granted access. After access was granted, the county made an official offer of $725,000, which Tennant rejected, Suntum said.

Podcast: After two floods in three years, Ellicott City reckons with its future

The county has purchased two of the four buildings scheduled for full demolition, paying $985,000 for the building housing the Great Panes art glass studio and $790,000 for the home of the Bean Hollow coffee shop.

Offers on all lower Main Street properties were based on pre-2018 appraisal values, county spokesman Scott Peterson said in an email. Throughout negotiations, he said, Tennant “asserted … that she believed her building had a specific value, which was higher than the values supported the county’s initial or reassessed appraisal.” Officials pulled the offer June 14 after her attorney failed to give an outside appraisal by 3 p.m. that day.

“This is not some type of power play,” said Tennant, who announced in early June she was closing her shop at the end of the month. “I just want to be treated fairly. The county has a moral, legal and ethical obligation to give me fair compensation.”

Eminent domain allows the government to take private property for public use and usually involves compensation for the owner of the property. In Howard, initiating condemnation proceedings requires the approval of the County Council, an official said. A council spokesman did not immediately respond to an email request asking when the last time the county invoked the process.

Tennant’s shop Discoveries was ravaged in 2016 after flood waters overwhelmed the channel and went cascading through her building. She said she went into debt after rebuilding with the support of volunteers. After the second flood in 2018, Tennant said she knew she couldn’t afford to rebuild again.

Tennant previously said she is unlike other property owners on lower Main Street as her building doubled as her residence and business.

After months of waiting to learn the fate of flood reduction efforts in historic Ellicott City, Howard County decided on an expensive proposal.

“I’m just trying to get through this nightmare,” she said. “I want to move on. I don’t want to keep going through this.”

Tennant officially closed her shop last week and does not know where she will go next. Discoveries served as her only source of income, she said, and the county’s offer did not compensate her for all she has lost.

Peterson said the county “is not responsible for compensating Ms. Tennant for her loss. Typically that loss is covered by insurance, which Ms. Tennant did not have.”

“She is not looking for damages, such as lost inventory on her business, caused by the flooding,” Suntum said. “She is simply looking for fair value, which was both her business, home and relocation benefits.”


Suntum argued that Tennant is entitled to relocation benefits as a displaced person and that the county has taken the position that it doesn't have to pay these benefits because federal money is not being used to acquire her property. Federal money will be used to help finance the overall project, Suntum said.

“Whether or not she had insurance is not relevant to whether or not she is entitled to be compensated for the county’s past poor stormwater management practices. If the county’s poor planning upstream is what caused the flooding and her damages. Whether she has insurance is not relevant,” Suntum said.

The historic district is located at the bottom of a valley next to the Patapsco River. Its location, coupled with decades of development that frequently went without sufficient stormwater management regulation, exacerbates flooding, environmental experts say.

Experts have also said rain events have been gradually increasing in severity and occurrences in recent memory. A 2017 National Climate Assessment found that heavy rain events are increasing nationally, and the greatest increases will occur in the Midwest, upper Great Plains and the Northeast.

The intense and deadly flooding that has twice ravaged the historic district in two years is not unique to Ellicott City, officials say.

All development prior to 1985 went in without stormwater management regulations. Standards enforced by the county evolved over time and, currently, the watershed’s stormwater management includes the “100-year” standard, meaning there is one chance in 100 of a flood or storm in a year. Minimally, Maryland requires environmental site design standards for development to be based on a one-year storm, according to Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Officials in May recommended the county add the 1,000-year storm event standard to its environmental site design management for new and redevelopment in the watershed. Currently, 5% of the land is being development and 1% is undeveloped.

Ball’s flood plan would limit to 3 feet the amount of water on lower Main Street if the July 2016 storm were to happen again. Less than a foot of water would be left on lower Main Street if the May 2018 storm were to occur again. Officials say it’s impossible to get these figures to zero.

A county official previously said Howard plans to pay for smaller, cheaper projects out of the capital budget and that they are “pursuing” a public-private partnership to pay for the tunnel and a large retention pond planned just south of the Tiber River.