Residents back flood-control plan to tear down Ellicott City buildings

Sixty-six people testified during a marathon Howard County Council legislative hearing Monday night on plans to mitigate flooding in historic Ellicott City.

The council is considering three bills needed for a five-year flood control plan that would raze 19 buildings to expand a channel for the Tiber River and replace them with open space.

The $50 million plan to demolish the structures requires approval from the county’s Historic Preservation Commission, a majority vote by the council and approval from the county executive.

The county has been studying ways to prevent or reduce flooding in the historic mill town for years, including stormwater retention systems and pipes, and some leaders had been reluctant to discuss tearing down buildings until a fast-moving Memorial Day weekend flood caused millions of dollars in damage to shops, roads and utilities.

During the six-hour hearing, six people who endured the May 27 flood shared harrowing tales of survival, and urged approval of the bills.

Linda Jones, who owns a tea shop in the downtown, said she was was trapped for nearly three hours with her workers and customers who dashed upstairs as water came through the floors.

Jones said they hung an SOS flag, made of cloth and chocolate mousse, while watching cars float away.

Jones, whose Victorian Tea Room and Gift Shop on lower Main Street remains closed, urged council members to vote in favor of funding the plans.

Support also came from Ellicott City Partnership, a nonprofit focused on economic development and preservation of the area.

“Preserving should not imply maintaining status quo at any cost,” said Matthew Fleming, the partnership’s president. The group’s 20-person board voted unanimously in support of the five-year plan.

“Any visitor to any historic city or town in the world is aware that cities and towns change over time. Cities and towns are living things. They evolve—shaped by events such as floods and fires and wars. Ellicott City is no different,” Fleming said.

County Councilman Jon Weinstein said in an interview before the hearing that the plan to remove the buildings evolved when the county and owners conferred.

Weinstein, who represents District 1 which includes Ellicott City, engaged in a back-and-forth with Elly Colmers Cowan, director of engagement for the Preservation Maryland, a nonprofit concerned that the removal of the structures would lead to the town’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places.

“We believe this speedy plan, which was rushed out at the end of August, deserves to be looked at more carefully,” Cowan said in an interview after her testimony.

“The history and heritage of Ellicott City goes beyond those who live there. Bringing the buildings down is irreversible,” Cowen said.

Her sentiment was shared by Tim Lattimer, who claimed the plan ignored the risks posed by climate change, was drafted in a rush and did not emerge from a transparent process nor present alternatives.

The county has had at least two public meeting since the Aug. 23 announcement of the proposal.

A number of residents supported the plans.

“How do you think it feels to have your livelihood destroyed twice in two years,” Christina Allen Page, an Ellicott City resident said.

Page added that the five-year plan is not perfect but “is the beginning of viable, systemic flood reduction plans that will improve our lives immensely.”

“Our resilience is not limitless. For us, the danger is imminent. We must act.”

Not all residents expressed the same attitude.

Kathy Howell, a resident who opposes the plan, insisted the short-term mitigation plan should not be so closely linked to building demolition.

“I understand these peoples’ pain,” Howell said as the hearing approached midnight. “Please take care of these folks first [by passing flood mitigation],” Howell said.

Ellicott City is in a valley, where rivers and streams were used centuries ago to power mills.

The money for some of the projects, which has already been allocated for this fiscal year, would be transferred from other projects and a contingency fund.

A vote on the funding plan is scheduled Oct. 1.

This story has been updated to reflect the number of people testifying at the hearing; more than 100 people had siged up to offer comments.

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