State bill could bring new flood control standards to historic Ellicott City

A bill expected to be considered by the state legislature next year would add regulations for new structures in historic Ellicott City.

The proposal recommends an update to Maryland’s code and would require the state Department of the Environment to adopt additional regulation for developments and redevelopments that might worsen flooding in the town that has had two deadly floods since 2016.

“It is important to not to continue to exacerbate the conditions that are creating flooding in the historic district,” said Del. Robert Flanagan, whose 20 year tenure representing Ellicott City and western portions of Howard County in the state legislature ended earlier this month after he lost to Courtney Watson, a Democrat who last week agreed to sponsor the bill.

The proposal, which also requires the structures and nearby infrastructure to be protected from flood damage potentially caused by new developments, mandates the state to base standards on the most intense flood the town has seen.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson declined to comment specifically on the legislative proposal.

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles in a statement said that “it takes collaboration and innovation for historic areas to find the right mix of green and gray infrastructure, stormwater management, preservation, and development.”

“The Department will continue to work closely with local leaders and citizens to protect the environment and increase climate resiliency in Ellicott City,” Grumbles added.

If adopted, the legislation would be enforced by Howard County through standards in a design manual that dictates how structures have to be built in historic Ellicott City’s watersheds, according to Jim Irvin, director of the county Department of Public Works.

The county currently requires new structures to be built to withstand a flood pushes 8.1 inches of rainwater in 24 hours, according to Irvin.

Flanagan’s bill would require the regulations to be based on the “flood-of-record” which is likely to be the 2018 flood. This flood pushed 7.52 inches of rain onto Main Street in six hours— 0.92 inches more than the 2016 flood in a four-hour span.

Updating the manual with MDE’s standards would require approval from the County Council and county executive.

Irvin said the “process is pretty routine” and happens approximately once every five years. The bill to update the manual rarely sees opposition from the county executive or council, Irvin said.

Opel Jones, a Democrat who will represent council District 2, which includes Oakland Mills and Columbia, said he supports the intent of the legislation.

David Yungmann, a Republican who will represent District 5, which includes the western portion of the county, in an email said he supports the intention of the bill but, as drafted, is “vague and creates more of a guideline for the county vs. creation of measurable standards.”

“The specific intention on the state level is unclear,” Yungmann said.

Incoming Councilwoman Christiana Rigby, whose district includes Savage and Guilford, in an email said she is “looking forward to hearing from the public on this and hearing more of the details.”

Councilwoman Liz Walsh, whose district includes Ellicott City and Councilwoman Deb Jung, whose district includes the five Columbia villages and parts of Clarksville, did not respond to requests for comment.

Rebecca Aaron, a spokeswoman for County Executive-elect Calvin Ball, in a statement said he “cares deeply about the safety of Ellicott City residents, businesses, and visitors” and “will continue to collaborate with the community and his colleagues in the General Assembly and County Council to find the best solutions to safeguard the city.”

“[Ball] will thoroughly review any measures and evaluate them prior to taking action,” Aaron said.

Flanagan last session co-sponsored a measure that would have imposed similar regulations on historic districts throughout the state.

“There was virtually no opposition to it,” he said.

Outgoing Del. Pat McDonough, a Republican who represented portions of Baltimore and Harford counties, was the only delegate to vote against the proposal. The bill found its way to the state Senate but was it held up a few before the end of session, according to Flanagan.

Watson said she plans to pick up Flanagan’s bill because Howard “needs stronger stormwater management requirements for Ellicott City standards should be sufficient to protect the watershed.”

Flanagan expressed concern that outgoing County Executive Allan Kittleman’s five-year flood plan would not be implemented as his opponent, Ball, throughout the campaign pinned himself a skeptic of the plan. He voted against the three bills that partially funded a $50 million, five-year plan because his amendments, which he believed would address the project’s shortfalls, were not included in the final bills.

“Since the flooding in 2016, and the flood in 2018, my thoughts have been on making historic [Ellicott City] safe and restoring it to its economic vitality. This bill and Kittleman’s plan is a part of what is needed,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan for 20 years shied away from testifying before Howard’s County Council as he felt it was not his place to do so. The Republican broke his tradition of non-engagement in September after testifying in favor of the legislation that partially funded the plan.

“All the experts support this plan,” Flanagan said in his testimony, “And I am here to support it as well.”

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