The Howard County Council on Friday unanimously approved a one-year freeze on development in the Tiber River and Plumtree Branch stream watersheds surrounding Ellicott City, where the low-elevation historic district was hit by intense flooding in May for the second time in less than two years.
The emergency legislation blocks the county from issuing permits for projects on properties where runoff from storms drains into creeks and rivers that flow into Ellicott City. Critics of rapid growth have argued that development has created more stormwater runoff, worsening flooding.
More than 30 projects are in the works in the watersheds and can proceed but about 600 housing units in various stages of permit approvals would be put on hold, according to county estimates.
The moratorium was proposed by Jon Weinstein, the Democratic councilman whose district includes Ellicott City, to allow time for additional studies of land use, stormwater management and drainage.
After it was passed at the council’s last meeting before a summer recess, the measure was immediately delivered to County Executive Allan Kittleman, who has said he will sign it.
A similar moratorium proposed after a July 2016 deadly flood, triggered by torrential rains, was tabled after Weinstein said there wasn’t full council support.
Following a push this summer from residents, the council included the Plumtree stream watershed in the freeze in an effort to protect the Valley Mede, Chatham, Nob Hill and Dunloggin neighborhoods.
The 4-square-mile Tiber watershed includes state and county roads, historic Ellicott City, as well as "older and newer commercial and residential development, public facilities and public schools,” the bill reads.
“I’m pleased for my constituents in the historic district as well as the residents of Valley Mede in particular who have suffered horrible losses these last few years,” Weinstein said. “I’m just looking forward to the time that the county now has to take additional steps to address the flooding issues.”
The moratorium drew support from residents at town hall meetings and public hearings earlier this month but was opposed by the Maryland Building Industry Association, which said development is not the reason for Ellicott City flooding and argued that there are other measures that could be taken to address community worries.
The council’s moratorium “ignores the lessons from previous flood studies,” the association said in a statement.
“While development may not be the primary cause, it is a contributor,” Weinstein said. “The studies that have been done that suggest that it isn’t as big a contributor I would say are tempered by the reality of our current climate.”
Solutions for flooding in Ellicott City, a centuries-old mill town built on bedrock at the confluence of several small streams and rivers, have been under review for decades.
The May 27 flood occurred days before federal agencies were planning to install high-tech flood monitors in the area’s waterways to help improve emergency alerts. One man died when he was swept away by floodwaters and damages have topped $20 million. The town’s Main Street was fully opened to traffic last week.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what happened,” said Jen Terrasa, a council member. “I don’t think we can keep thinking of it in terms of catastrophic floods anymore. We need a new measure.”
Weinstein noted the conversation to address stormwater issues has been going on for years, but “more action is needed.”
The Planning and Zoning and Public Works departments have been ordered to study factors that have caused flooding and make recommendations on ways to protect properties from future floods by next June.
“The measures we have are not effective any longer,” Weinstein said, adding he hopes the next council and county executive look at “a number of different ways” to tighten county regulations to address climate change and address future building and development. All five members of the County Council will leave their seats in December.
Damage from May’s flood, estimated at $20.8 million, is almost double the cost of 2016’s flood.