The Ellicott Theater in the Historic District on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Photo by Howard R. Fletcher/Capital News Service)

By Howard R. Fletcher
Capital News Service

ELLICOTT CITY, Maryland — In a move to slow down Howard County’s flood mitigation plan, which would demolish 10 buildings in historic Ellicott City, a preservation group on Wednesday released a report that questions county officials’ decision-making methodology.

The historic advocacy group Preservation Maryland contracted with an engineering firm, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., to review several reports generated by Howard County, including one on hydrology and hydraulics by engineering firm McCormick Taylor, and the county’s recently released five-year flood reduction plan.

“We believe that flood-mitigation strategies which address both life safety concerns and preservation of the historic character of Ellicott City have not been fully vetted by Howard County,” Simpson Gumpertz & Heger stated in their report’s executive summary.

Historic preservationists and other opponents of the county’s proposal have been critical of county leaders’ lack of investigation into underground tunnel boring as a possible remedy to a river of water barreling down Main Street during flash floods.

A tunnel would divert the water, from the Tiber and other runoff, under Main Street through a large, drilled pipeline and run it below the residential and commercial areas into the Patapsco, according to Preservation Maryland and other supporters of this alternative.

“When you’re talking about demolishing a good chunk of the Historic District and perhaps the livelihood and future of that community, it seems to me, and apparently this engineering firm (Simpson Gumpertz & Heger), that it is only prudent to look at (the tunnel) option,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland in a telephone interview with Capital News Service on Wednesday.

County officials have stated that the experience of two lethal floods in a span of 22 months has raised their sense of urgency and accelerated their action plan.

“We based our plan on the years of data and scientific analysis compiled by McCormick Taylor, a firm which has had significant, long-term experience working in the Ellicott City watershed,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

“An independent and unsolicited review of this plan (including removing the 10 buildings) by KCI Technologies, a well-respected engineering firm, concurred with our plan. The time for studying is over. We must now implement a plan that protects lives.”

The county’s proposal includes stormwater mitigation above the Historic District to reduce the amount of water that flows down, and the removal of 10 buildings that sit on or close to the Tiber to widen the channel as it flows to the Patapsco River.

Flood water velocity would be reduced from 11.1 feet per second and greater, which happened during a July 30, 2016, flood, to approximately 4.5 feet per second. The water’s depth will decrease from over 8 feet to 2-6 feet, according to numbers in the county’s plan.

“The National Weather Service has pointed out to us that this type of event could happen more frequently,” said Philip Nichols, assistant chief administrative officer of Howard County in an interview with Capital News Service in September. “There was a need to prioritize public safety, first and foremost.”

Another contributing factor to the choice of the government’s plan was that after a May 2018 flood, property owners approached the county to acquire their buildings, Nichols said.

“Relieving property owners of the liability and costs associated with this (flood damage), as we’ve said from the beginning, we’re fully supportive of that,” said Redding. “It’s what Howard County then does with those structures that is of great concern.”

Preservation Maryland’s hopes that the Simpson Gumpertz & Heger report and a November turnover of at least one seat in the County Council will help slow a process that they have criticized since the county’s flood mitigation plan was proposed in August.

“It is our expectation that this report will significantly change the conversation moving forward,” said Redding. “We look forward to working with Howard County and a new council to fully explore alternatives to the demolition that is being considered.”