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Howard County to host public meeting Thursday on Ellicott City flood mitigation proposals. Here's what could happen next.

Howard officials will host a meeting Thursday night to allow the public to weigh in on the five options the county is considering to ease flooding in historic Ellicott City — all of which require razing at least four buildings.

The old mill town was ravaged by catastrophic floods in 2016 and 2018, leaving more than 8 feet of water on lower Main Street, multiple people dead and millions in damage.

Last summer, then-County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed razing 10 buildings on lower Main Street to ease future flooding, drawing the ire of preservationists. The Republican’s plan was halted after losing his bid for re-election to Calvin Ball, a Democrat who represented Oakland Mills and portions of Columbia on the County Council for 12 years.

Under Ball, the county has acquired seven of the 10 buildings, but demolition will not start immediately. A plan must be chosen first.

Though testimony will be taken at the 7 p.m. meeting in the Howard High School cafeteria, the decision over which option to pursue ultimately lays with Ball. He said he would announce his choice by May 15.

The options include:

  • 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.

Funding

During a news conference last month, Ball acknowledged the county does not know how it will pay for the projects. Though Howard has been awarded some state funding — $3.4 million from this year’s state capital budget and $700,000 from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development — a significant gap remains as the five options range in cost from $63 million to $175 million.

Under Kittleman, the County Council allocated $17 million in funding, which the county is using to proceed with upstream projects, stream cleanups and building acquisition. Ball has proposed designating $15.3 million in funding for mitigation projects this year. If additional outside funding is not secured, the county would have to allocate money accrued from revenues or in bonds, which would require the approval of the County Council.

This could result in a heavy burden as revenue streams are in danger of falling short of the county’s spending, a government report found. A committee earlier this year encouraged the county to limit the amount it spends in bonds and to increase the road excise tax rate, school impact fees and the transfer tax rate to keep pace with spending.

CSX Corp.

Boring tunnels would require the county to get a license agreement from CSX Corp., the entity that operates the railroad track that runs through the historic district. The tunnels the county are considering would run under the railroad tracks. The county would need an agreement to cross their property, according to a county spokesman.

CSX evaluates projects that would intrude on the property and does a preliminary engineering review of the proposal.

A spokeswoman did not respond to requests asking for specifics on evaluation requirements, potential for denials or how often they occur.

The county

Howard must award itself permits to demolish buildings on lower Main Street. But the structures’ locations in a historic district require officials to go before the county’s Historic Preservation Commission to receive approval because the move will alter the exterior of multiple buildings. The commission is required to give consideration to threats to public safety even if the structure is of “unusual importance.”

Maryland Department of the Environment

The county needs nontidal wetlands and waterway permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment to pursue mitigation efforts. Because the plan is seen as a major project, since it will permanently impact the area, the permit approval process will take at least a year.

Howard is also required to notify the state before demolishing buildings because the process could unearth asbestos, minerals that when disturbed can cause dangerous exposure. The county has to survey the area for the toxic mineral and, if necessary, contract someone to properly remove and dispose of it.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

The county will also need guidance from the Department of Natural Resources to assess the plan’s impact on the floodplain and the Patapsco River.

The department, which is responsible for assessing the health of Maryland’s streams, tidal rivers and watersheds lands, will have the opportunity to review and comment on the plan as part of the multi-agency clearinghouse process, according to spokesman Gregg Bortz. The process is administered through the Maryland Department of State Planning.

The guidelines for review include:

  • Encouraging state agencies and local governments to comment on state and federal activities;
  • Minimizing duplication of effort and conflicting actions;
  • Identifying and addressing potential inconsistencies between state, regional, and local plans and objectives;
  • Facilitating the resolution of concerns and issues before project or plan implementation;
  • Strengthening communication and cooperation between various levels of government; and
  • Promoting the development of policies that are consistent with state policies, goals and objectives.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A typical permit from the Army Corps of Engineers would take 30 to 60 days for approval. However, since the projects are in a historic area, the timeline is elongated because it requires a process in which officials assess if the plans will alter the characteristics that place the town on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Army Corps, which published a flood-proofing study of Ellicott City early last year, could also deny the county’s permit. Permit denials occur when “practical alternative[s] to the proposed project that is less damaging to the aquatic ecosystem,” said Becca Nappi, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Baltimore office. She added that denials are rare.

The alternatives will not be known until the county determines which option it will pursue.

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elogan@baltsun.com

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This story has been updated. It previously incorrectly stated the County Council under former County Executive Allan Kittleman voted to authorize $32.534 million in funding toward Ellicott City. The number was incorrectly derived from adding the subtotals of two funding bills. One of the bills gave authority to sell bonds and the other allocated it to projects in the historic district. The council authorized $17 million, not $32.534 million.
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