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Howard County executive says county will acquire, then assess Ellicott City properties

Baltimore Sun Media Group

Saying Howard County “must make sure we are not using a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is necessary,” County Executive Calvin Ball said last week that the county will continue its move to acquire buildings in historic Ellicott City, but has not committed to demolishing them.

At a news conference Dec. 27 on Main Street in the historic district — which experienced two deadly floods over a 22-month span — Ball announced a package of flood mitigation efforts he dubbed his “Safe and Sound” initiative.

Components include continuing construction of infrastructure to improve stormwater retention and stream capacity, more frequent maintenance of tributaries to remove debris, upgrades in the county alert system to warn people of potential flooding and other disasters and a matching grant program to provide $150,000 of funds for private flood mitigation efforts.

Ball, a Democrat who was elected in November, said the measures were all aimed at public safety, which he called “a top priority and my most sacred responsibility as county executive.”

Ball’s predecessor, former executive Allan Kittleman, had advocated acquisition of more than a dozen buildings in the historic district for demolition. Kittleman, a Republican, had said razing buildings was studied following the 2016 flash flood that struck the town and was deemed best way to increase safety and provide for long term viability of the district.

In the press conference at Tersiguel’s Restaurant, Ball said his administration “intends to honor the offers” that have been made to building owners along Main Street, and would continue negotiations in “good faith” for the county to eventually acquire the buildings.

But he stopped short of saying the buildings would be torn down, saying each will be assessed by a structural engineer to determine stability and integrity.

“We have not for sure slated to demolish anything,” he said.

Mark DeLuca, deputy director of public works, said Ball’s announcement was the “first step” in a plan that will continue to unfold as the new year begins.

“We are looking to try and save as many of the structures on lower Main [Street] as possible,” DeLuca added

The proposal to raze as many as 13 buildings had been advocated by Kittleman as part of a broader flood mitigation plan that also included building water retention facilities and expanding waterways beneath the streets over five years to help lessen the impacts of future floods. The five-year plan was derived from studies that followed both the 2016 and 2018 floods, as well as feedback from residents and business owners.

Ball has stated previously that while he supports the flood mitigation infrastructure projects, he wanted to further study the demolition plan. In October he voted against partial funding for the $50 million overall plan after he proposed several amendments that failed. The measure passed without his support.

The demolition plan had also drawn opposition from the nonprofit Preservation Maryland. The advocacy group had expressed concern that razing historic buildings in the district could jeopardize Ellicott County’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Joy Sung, owner of Lamp & Gift on Main Street, said she does not want to see her building demolished, though she knows a solution to flooding is difficult to achieve.

“I believe most people want to keep the street like before [the flood],” said Sung, who opened her shop on lower Main Street in January 2017. During the May flooding that left one person dead and devastated the district, Sung closed her store while she cleaned up mud, water damage and mold. “I also hope they can keep this street the same but I don’t know what the solution is for a flood.”

Liz Walsh, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City on the County Council, noted that Ball rolled out a plan less than a month into his administration, and said that indicates he is “clearly laser focused” on making Ellicott City safer.

But Jon Weinstein, a former county councilman who represented Ellicott City but lost his reelection bid, was critical of the Ball proposals. He said some of the initiatives are things “that were already in progress, things to continue going forward.”

And he said not taking action to remove some buildings on the lower part of Main Street “is leaving the same problem open.”

At the press conference, Ball discussed other elements not specifically related to infrastructure — such as business retention, marketing and preservation. He said he wanted to “retain as much of Old Ellicott City’s charm and history as possible” and assist Main Street businesses with promotion and tourism.

He said had directed the county’s Economic Development Authority to support a full-time ombudsman for Main Street business, and he also wanted to explore creating a Community Development Corporation for Ellicott City that “incorporates all of Ellicott City’s diverse stakeholders.” He said he would form a committee to examine the feasibility of a CDC in the new year.

Ball said the pilot assistance program, another aspect of the Safe and Sound initiative, will provide grants up to $5,000 for flood mitigation projects taken on by individual property owners in Old Ellicott City as well as nearby areas of Valley Meade and Dunloggin. The total program cap will be $150,000, and after a year the effort will be evaluated to determine if it should be expanded to other areas.

The county executive also said he will work with the county’s delegation in the upcoming Maryland General Assembly legislative session on flood mitigation and public safety issues.

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