A majority of the five-member Howard County Council voted in favor of funding a controversial plan to remove 19 buildings in historic Ellicott City, an area that suffered a deadly flood in 2016 and another this year.
The five-year plan, which was announced in August by County Executive Allan Kittleman and County Councilman Jon Weinstein, would demolish 10 buildings on lower Main Street to widen the channel for the Tiber River, two buildings from the middle of Main Street to widen the Hudson River bend and seven residential buildings on the western side of the historic district.
Calvin Ball, a Democratic challenger for county executive, and Jen Terrasa, a Democrat, were the only council members to vote against the three funding bills, two of which passed. Ball voted no because some of his proposed amendments were excluded. Terrasa in an email said she voted against the plan because it would “either discourage people from going to Main Street or give them a false sense of security.”
The five-year plan was modeled on a deadly 2016 flood that pushed more than 8 feet of water onto lower Main Street. The current plan is designed to dramatically decrease the water speed and reduce the amount of floodwater in a similar storm to 4-6 feet.
“I’m not convinced there isn’t a better option out there that would further reduce water on Main Street,” Terrasa said.
The two bills approved allow the county to borrow a maximum of $15,775,000 and transfer $16.759 million from money designated for technology infrastructure upgrades, improvements to the East Columbia Library Athletic Field and construction of a fire station on Route 1.
The third bill, which required four votes because it would move money from a special fund, would have moved $1.5 million from an emergency fund to pay for the project.
Weinstein, a Democrat who represents historic Ellicott City, said this bill’s failure is “not a material impact” to the larger plan and would likely result in the delay of a side project.
The county anticipates between $20 million and $30 million in state and federal funding to pay for the $50 million plan, according to Paul Milton, an aide to Kittleman. The plan requires approval from Kittleman, the county’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Kittleman in a statement thanked the council for approving the fund transfer.
"I look forward to continuing to work with the community and other interested groups in the coming months to make Ellicott City stronger, smarter and safer," the Republican said.
The plan is endorsed by Ellicott City Partnership and criticized by Preservation Maryland, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that fears it would lead to the town’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation last week gave the Baltimore-based nonprofit a $5,000 grant for an engineer to review the proposed plans.
In a draft of the report obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger recommended the county update its model to “reflect the extent of damage associated with the 27 May 2018 flood,” enlist Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Historic Trust to review the social and financial implications of removing the 10 historic properties from lower Main Street, and “evaluate the feasibility and cost of the alternate tunnel bores.”
Engineering firm McCormick Taylor in a 2016 study for the county proposed the creation of two tunnels in the historic district to redirect water away from downtown. Deputy Director of Public Works Mark DeLuca said during a work session last week that this plan is only effective when the Patapsco River stays at a low level.
“Rushed legislation for the sake of passing something is not good governance, and we implore the members of the Howard County Council to move forward with funding for proven stormwater mitigation strategies, while tabling the divisive and unproven demolition component of this plan,” Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland, said in a statement.
The nonprofit financed a poll released last week that found 74 percent of Howard residents surveyed would support plans that don’t require tearing down buildings. These findings are in stark contrast to the rhetoric espoused by an overwhelming number of residents who during a marathon September legislative hearing implored the council to fund the plan.
Ellicott City businesswoman Angie Tersiguel said the 2016 and 2018 floods left her with $500,000 in damages. Tersiguel said the plan will likely “change the scope of the way the town looks” but is necessary.
“We do need out-of-the-box solutions and we need to have an imagination about what our community will look like with the potential that is there,” said Tersiguel, who owns Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant on middle Main Street. “It’s hard to see potential when you’re angry about what the outcome might be.”
The council also voted unanimously to ban the use and sale of coal tar and some of its alternatives.
The thick, black liquid contains varying amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which is linked to skin irritations, mutations and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Howard County’s Department of Public Works said it does not rely on coal-tar sealant or its alternatives to repair parking lots and roads. The substance is often used to patch commercial parking lots and residential driveways.
The bill was criticized by businessmen who fear it might inspire neighboring Baltimore County to enact similar legislation, leading to the demise of their companies.