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Bill would impede Howard waivers for developers in Ellicott City

For a second time, a Howard County lawmaker has introduced legislation that would impede county officials from giving certain waivers to those who wish to build in historic Ellicott City.

The measure proposed by Councilwoman Liz Walsh would stop county officials from allowing developers to disturb certain land in portions of the historic district by expanding protections surrounding the buffers around wetlands, steep slopes and all waterways, including man-made streams, Walsh said.

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Historic Ellicott City has seen two deadly, catastrophic floods since 2016.

The proposal does allow officials to grant waivers for those who wish to install infrastructure that will reduce future flooding. The proposal also expands the Ellicott City watershed by re-labeling it under a state-recognized zone. The “slightly enhanced” environmental regulatory change would "demonstrate a balance can be achieved between continuing development and better protecting the environment,” Walsh said, adding she hopes she could eventually expand it throughout the county.

“Why are we only going to protect where we’ve done the most harm? We need to apply it to surrounding neighborhoods that are also susceptible to flooding.”

The bill also expands protections for forests.

“The natural state of forest is the gold standard for stormwater mitigation,” she said. “If we have the gold standard in existence now, we should be working to protect it now.”

Scott Peterson, spokesman for County Executive Calvin Ball, said officials are “currently reviewing” the new legislation filed by Walsh.

County code stipulates officials preserve land in the 100-year floodplain, but they are allowed to grant waivers under certain conditions including constructing an “addition, garage, driveway or other accessory use improvement of an existing residential structure” that is of a certain size in the Tiber watershed.

Officials can also grant waivers if it is necessary to reconstruct “existing structures or infrastructure damaged by flood, fire, or other disaster” or to build stormwater management systems as part of the redevelopment of a project.

Walsh, whose district includes historic Ellicott City, has filed legislation that would strike all waiver allowances unless they are needed to retrofit existing stormwater management facilities or install infrastructure that is solely meant to curb flooding in the historic district.

Howard prohibits developers from paving, grading or removing trees in areas like wetland buffers, steep slopes or near streams unless it is deemed a necessary disturbance to build “roads, driveways, utilities, trails, pathways or stormwater management facilities” that are needed for “reasonable development” of the property.

Earlier this year, Walsh attempted to void a clause in the county code permitting the Department of Planning and Zoning to allow developers to disturb wetlands. The clause states officials could require developers to pursue the “least damaging designs.”

In January, Walsh filed legislation to strike the exemption, which she previously deemed a “loophole” in the protection of wetlands. The measure passed the County Council, but not as intended.. It was amended to require officials to track and make public the exemptions they approve and to require the least damaging design, instead of just considering it.

Walsh’s bill will not be formally considered by the County Council until September.

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