Howard County will spend as much as $140 million to ease the deadly flooding that sweeps into historic Ellicott City.
The massive civil works project involves boring a large tunnel near Main Street to divert the stormwater that rushes down the steep-sided valley into the quaint mill town. Four buildings on the lower part on the historic strip also will be razed, county officials announced Monday.
Yet none of this will prevent flooding, just reduce it.
The town’s historic district was ravaged by floods that left two dead in 2016 and one in 2018, resulted in millions in damage and sent more than 8 feet of water on Main Street after rainwater overwhelmed the Tiber River and poured out of the channel. In 2016, two people were swept away by rushing water and in 2018, a Maryland Army National Guard member died trying to save someone.
The option announced by officials Monday would leave a maximum of 3 feet of water on lower Main Street if the July 2016 storm were to happen again. Less than a foot of water would be left on lower Main Street if the May 2018 storm were to occur again.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said the project could cost between $113.5 million to $140.5 million and be completed by mid-2025. The county has picked up $4.1 million in state funding and is using the $17 million awarded by the County Council last year on projects farther upstream.
If the county does not receive additional outside funding, it will likely use bond money in future capital budgets. Ball has proposed $15 million in next fiscal year’s capital budget for projects across the watershed.
Councilman David Yungmann, a Republican whose district includes the western portion of the county, said he is “very concerned to hear we are committing to a plan which, compared to the plan presented in 2018, [could be] $84 million more expensive and is unlikely to be completed in the projected timeframe, all to reduce depth by two feet and [partially] save six mostly non-historic structures.”
Then-County Executive Allan Kittleman last year proposed an estimated $50 million, five-year plan that would have razed all 10 buildings on lower Main Street. Under Ball’s plan, officials will tear down the back portions of most of the six buildings that are not being completely demolished located above the Tiber channel.
Ball said his proposal allows officials to “move with a sense of urgency” and “prioritize public safety.” He called the plan “ambitious” and “realistic.”
The 2025 timeline is “aggressive” and would depend largely on permit approvals and property acquisitions, officials said. The structures to be razed under the plan chosen by Ball — Phoenix Emporium, Great Panes Art Glass Studio, Discoveries and Bean Hollow — are located at the bottom of lower Main Street and their removal will allow engineers to widen streambeds to stimulate the flow of water.
The plan would also divert cascading water by boring a tunnel 15 feet in diameter, 80 to 100 feet deep and 1,600 feet long on the north side of Main Street from lot F located along Ellicott Mills Road to the Patapsco River. Because the tunnel will run parallel to Main Street, “it won’t be in the way,” said Mark DeLuca, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, adding this project will likely not fully disrupt businesses in the area.
Officials plan to more proactively manage the stream corridors and place gates farther upstream to catch debris from clogging the tunnel.
Main Street resident Christina Allen Page said she doesn’t “mind that price tag for a plan that we are sure will work.”
“I don't think that we should cut corners based on cost, but I do believe that we should spend our money wisely. Given what [the county] told us about tunnels all through 2018 … I'm not convinced that tunnels are the best use of that money,” she added.
DeLuca previously said the tunnel would only be effective if the Patapsco River stays at a certain level. The tunnel would likely be engineered to account for high water levels.
The plan presented by Kittleman drew condemnation from preservationists and some community members who believed the amount of water left on the street was not safe.
That plan would have dramatically decreased the velocity of floodwaters and left a maximum of 5.5 feet of water on lower Main Street, if the July 2016 storm were to occur again.
Kittleman, a Republican, lost his bid for re-election last year to Ball, a Democrat. As a councilman, Ball voted against the bills that partially funded flood reduction efforts because his amendments, which he believed would address the plan’s shortfalls, were not included.
When Ball took office last year, he directed engineers to devise plans that prioritize historic preservation and minimize flooding and to not think of financial limitations. Experts modeled their plans based on the 2016 and 2018 storms.
The four other options to the plan chosen Monday ranged from $63.5 million to $175 million and left a maximum of 2 to 5 feet of water on lower Main Street.
Ball said the other options that did not include tunnels did not sufficiently reduce future flood levels. The only option more expensive than what was chosen would have required boring a second tunnel and would have left a maximum of 2 to 3 feet on lower Main Street.
President of Preservation Maryland Nicholas Redding said “in difficult and complex situations, there’s rarely a simple and easy solution.”
“From a preservation standpoint, we are pleased to see the number of demolitions has dropped significantly,” he said, adding the Baltimore-based nonprofit is pleased to see this alternative results in less water than the previous one. Redding said he is hopeful the organization will be able to participate in the federal process that analyzes the historic value of properties before allowing the county to raze them.
The county has spent $12.1 million to repair damage caused by the 2018 Ellicott City flood and has been reimbursed $3.2 million by federal agencies, according to Ball spokesman Scott Peterson. These figures are expected to increase as more repairs are completed and reimbursements move through the pipeline, Peterson previously said.
Councilwoman Liz Walsh, whose district includes Ellicott City, said Monday she is “relieved” that the county is taking a different approach than what was previously considered.
“There are opportunities to find more funding at the state and federal level,” Walsh said, adding that the county has not yet “optimized” what they could get from the federal government.
The county owns seven of the 10 buildings once targeted for demolition. Peterson previously declined to disclose how much the county had spent on acquiring properties. A review of state property records shows the county paid $600,000 for Tea on the Tiber, $1.05 million for one of the Johnson buildings, $1.55 million for Shoemakers, $1.21 million for Miss Fit and $985,000 for Great Panes.
Len Berkowitz, former co-owner of Great Panes, said he supported the previous plan, but said he backs Ball’s proposal.
Berkowitz, who ran his glass staining shop for nearly 40 years alongside wife Sherry, found himself “well in debt” after the 2016 and 2018 floods. After the county purchased their building, the debt was eliminated, he said. After last May’s flood, the Berkowitzes decided to move their home and business to Marriottsville in Carroll County.
“They have to solve the problem and they’ll have to deal with financing however they can,” Len Berkowitz said.