ELLICOTT CITY — A plan to reduce flooding in Ellicott City calls for demolishing 5 percent of buildings in the historic downtown area.
County Executive Allan H. Kittleman and Councilman Jon Weinstein disclosed the proposed demolitions as part of a five-year plan unveiled at a news conference on Thursday at the Baltimore & Ohio Ellicott City Station Museum Plaza. The overall proposal is expected to cost between $40 million and $50 million.
“We could spend our time looking over our shoulders, discussing, debating, and second-guessing how we got to this point. We could speculate, and place blame, but the reality is much of what happened in the past occurred long before any of us standing here today were involved in this battle to save our town,” Kittleman said. “Looking behind us won’t solve the problem, it won’t mitigate flooding, and it definitely won’t save lives.”
Currently, the plan calls for the county to buy and raze 10 commercial buildings on the south side of Main Street, roughly from the Caplan’s Building to Maryland Avenue. The demolition clears the way for expanding a channel for river water to run downhill. The 5 percent figure also includes several residential properties near Main Street the county wants to demolish.
On May 27, one man was killed and the historic town was severely damaged by a flash flood that swept down Main Street. It was the second deadly flood to his the town in two years. Built as a mill town in the 1770s, Ellicott City is located in a flood plain in the Tiber and Hudson rivers watershed near the confluence of the Patapsco River.
The county did not disclose the addresses for properties proposed for demolition because officials still are negotiating with the owners of some properties. Properties that would be razed under the proposed plan include the current home of the Phoenix Emporium bar and restaurant and Bean Hallow coffee shop.
During his remarks Weinstein pitched the possibility of new building on a nearby parking lot offering space for displaced businesses.
“The master plan process, which is entering its final phase, will include new opportunities for Parking Lot D behind the Visitors Center, with possibilities for a mixed-use parking garage. There could be a space for new or relocated businesses and additional parking that we’ve all desired for a long, long time,” Weinstein said.
Lexi Milani, a vice president with the Ellicott City Partnership, with tears in her eyes, expressed sympathy for the area business owners who will lose their buildings, but said the changes have to be made to guarantee safety.
“I am unbelievably sad about the part of this plan that requires relocating businesses and removing buildings. But as a former business owner … I accept that changes must be made … after the second catastrophic event,” Milani said.
Engineering firm McCormick Taylor, hired by the county to study flooding in Ellicott City, previously suggested a list of 18 flood curtailing measures. Those projects have a combined estimated price tag of $84 million. Howard County’s current cap on general obligation debt is $95 million annually.
Kittleman and Weinstein promised a robust public review process for the project. Implementing the plan will require the Howard County Council to approve legislation to provide funding for purchasing and tearing down properties.
Howard County elected officials have been upfront about now considering options that seemed drastic after the 2016 flood. During a town hall meeting in June, Kittleman told residents and business the county was contemplating purchasing and razing private property. During an interview at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City last week he said the county was “looking at a major change in Ellicott City.”
But some residents who attended the announcement said they were caught flat-footed. They blamed overdevelopment for the flooding and questioned why the county was so willing to demolish historic buildings.
Shelley Wygant, a past president of the Howard County Historical Society and board member of Historic Ellicott City, said she didn’t find out about the announcement until early Thursday morning. The transparent public process elected officials promised, she said, will be little more than meetings where officials tell residents what’s going to happen.
“This was sprung on the community as a fait accompli,” said Wygant, who authored the book “Haunted Ellicott City.” She lamented the pending loss of half the properties she included in the compilation.
Liz Walsh, who defeated Weinstein in this summer’s Democratic primary by two votes, said the extent of the proposed demolition, combined with the sudden nature of the announcement, was shocking. There may be a rational reason for what the county is doing, she said, but nothing like it was proposed in engineering studies on the flooding issue.
“It’s not revelatory. Water runs downhill,” Walsh, who has a civil engineering degree, said. “I can’t see how taking down 10 or more of these historic buildings helps.”