Hurdles remain before buildings can be demolished in historic Ellicott City

The ambitious five-year plan to raze 13 buildings to mitigate flooding in historic Ellicott City was partially approved last week when Executive Allan Kittleman signed legislation that partially funds the $50 million, five-year plan.

The bill’s approval was lauded by many who endured major flooding in 2011, 2016 and May.

But plans— demolition, widening streams and creating an open space — must clear multiple hurdles. And this could take a very long time.

The County

The county must award itself a permit for demolition. Before this happens, it must obtain a certificate of approval from the Historic Preservation Commission, an independent entity housed under the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning that reviews request to alter, move or demolish structures in historic areas.

When reviewing requests, the commission must “give consideration to” the significance of the structure, its relationship to the surrounding area and compatibility with the proposed exterior design. But Preservation Maryland, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that opposes the county plan, fears a new bill would dramatically change the way the commission vets the $50 million plan.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Councilmen Jon Weinstein, Greg Fox and Mary Kay Sigaty, would require the commission to approve requests that would work to protect against “threats to public safety.”

This bill “would effectively turn the commission into a rubber stamp for the demolition plan,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland. Weinstein has preciously said the “bill is not an end-around the law.”

The chairman of the commission has described some of the language in the bill as concerning, but declined to elaborate. The commission has yet to take an official stance and is exploring sending a letter or representative to testify at a County Council hearing tonight.

Maryland Department of the Environment

The county needs non-tidal wetlands and waterway permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

This plan is seen as a “major project” because it will permanently impact the area and permit approval will take one year.

Howard is also require to notify the state before demolishing buildings because it could unearth asbestos, minerals that when disturbed can cause dangerous exposure.

The county is required to survey the area for the toxic mineral and, if necessary, contract someone to properly remove and dispose of it.

United States Army Corps of Engineers

A typical permit from the Army Corps of Engineers would take 30 to 60 days for approval. But because 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 (directly or indirectly) the characteristics that place the town on the National Register of Historic Places.

The corps 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 to Becca Nappi, a spokesman for the corp’s Baltimore office. Nappi said denials are rare.

The alternatives presented include creating of two tunnels that allow water to flow into the Patapsco River. This project would cost $80 million, take more than five years and will only work if the Patapsco’s waters stay at a low level, according to Mark Deluca, deputy director of the public works.

What can stop the county’s plan?

The plan’s continuation is closely linked to funding. The county wants o acquire $20 million in reimbursements from Federal Emergency Management Agency. But before this happens, it must front the money. Throughout the next few years, funding will be delineated through the annual budgets, which must be submitted by the county executive and approved by the County Council.

The incoming council could vote against budgets that fund the projects. The county executive could simply choose to not request monies.

If Kittleman is re-elected, the likelihood of this happening is slim. He previously praised the council for voting to partially fund the plan and he defended it when a third-party engineering report implored the county to consider alternatives to razing.

“The time for studying is over,” Kittleman said in a statement. “We must now implement a plan that protects lives,” adding it was based on “years of data and scientific analysis.”

Councilman Calvin Ball, his Democratic opponent, voted against the three funding bills because his amendments, which he believed would would address the plan’s shortfalls, were not included.

Ball in an email said that while he “might not stop flood mitigation projects in process, I would always look for more effective alternative solutions that did not leave 4-6' feet of deadly water in residential and retail areas after five years and $50 million.”

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