Photo of Ellicott City in May 2016. By Famartin, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the wake of two devastating flash floods in three years, Howard County last week unveiled its plan to tackle any future deluges before the same natural disaster happens again. The county’s $50 million blueprint entails demolishing as many as 19 low-lying historic buildings in order to widen existing channels for the Tiber River and streams running beneath the old town’s streets, and adding three water-retention facilities upstream and new tunnels to carry floodwaters away from Main Street.

County Executive Allan Kittleman said the changes would help protect the town at a press conference one week ago. “I wish we weren’t here,” he said solemnly. “But this is a change we need.”

A group of preservationists says that’s not true, however.

In a report published yesterday, Preservation Maryland criticized the county’s reliance on demolition as a flood-mitigation strategy, saying it “could come at an extremely significant cost to the economic well-being of the district” and could cause the town to lose its National Register of Historic Places designation.

“Having the buildings in place and being able to tell that story about Ellicott City, perhaps if it’s no longer commercially viable, at least in that area, is still a much better alternative,” said the nonprofit’s executive director, Nicholas Redding, in an interview.

The group also pointed to models referenced in the county’s recently published study of all its options, saying “by the study’s own admission,” flooding on Lower Main Street—the area hit hardest in 2016 and 2018—”may only be reduced from 6′-8′ to 4′-6′.”

Here’s the baseline (left) model from 2016 paired with the planned model with the buildings removed. Purple represents eight feet of water or more; dark red represents six to eight feet of water; light red represents four to six feet.

Images via McCormick Taylor/Howard County

Overdevelopment above the historic section of Ellicott City has been blamed in part for the Tiber Branch’s rapid rise during storms. But Redding noted the demolition plans are “pretty much all focused on the lower town… This is like an end-of-pipe solution for a problem that’s beginning at the top of the pipe.”

Preservation Maryland’s report noted the McCormick Taylor hydrology study that Howard County paid for after the 2016 flood doesn’t make any references to demolition as an option. Howard County’s report does note that the government was “in the process of designing and engineering” four projects recommended in the McCormick Taylor study when this year’s Memorial Day weekend flood hit; that flood has since “shifted the conversation in dealing with this issue,” the county’s report said.

Redding says the county should “take a step back” and work with preservationists and others more closely on its plan before carrying it out. His orgnaization has some other ideas for what to do. The nonprofit says each would keep all of historic Ellicott City’s structures intact, including the ones set to be removed on low-lying Main Street that house popular businesses like the Phoenix Emporium and Bean Hollow, and some would also add new tourist appeal while still allowing space for water to flow through.

Among the proposals:

  • Go with McCormick Taylor’s recommendations, like creating more storage ponds, expanding and stabilizing stream banks, upping capacity of existing pipes and culverts (read: drainage tunnels) and adding underground “pipe farms” and storage vaults to divert water away post-flood;
  • Acquire and preserve, but not demolish, flood-prone structures, then add “structural steel skeletons” to stabilize them inside and “wetproof” them by removing drywall, plumbing, wiring and more modern trappings. This would basically turn them into shells. “You would allow flood waters to move through the building, and essentially create a situation where they are allowed to actually accept water and expel water,” Redding said.
  • That same option, but also renovate the second floors of the buildings to make them usable as office or residential space, including as rentable rooms for tourists.
  • Perhaps the most radical idea compared to the status quo: Have the state acquire the buildings with funds reserved for parks and recreational space, stabilize and “wetproof” them and then turn the preserved area into a state park. It would be similar to preserved historic sites in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, or the low-lying former towns along the C&O Canal in Montgomery County that serve as individual museums or period piece-like rental properties.

A spokesman for Howard County they could not respond to Preservation Maryland’s proposal Thursday.

Preservation Maryland’s report didn’t criticize the county altogether, and noted the top priority here is “life safety.”

“We absolutely applaud the work of both the local officials and employees in county government. They’re doing a really good job under tough circumstances,” Redding said. “That said, I think that whether you’re a preservationist, a concerned taxpayer, whatever it might be, out of this process you probably would want a little more public engagement.”

All signs point to the county proceeding with its razing plan. Kittleman said last week that some property owners had approached the government about buying their properties, tired of dealing with flood damages. The county is still “having those conversations” about acquiring the buildings, he said.

In the meantime, he’s appointed four Ellicott City locals to an advisory group that will identify “key historic features that can be preserved and re-used when the buildings are removed to widen the channel” at the lower end of Main Street.

“I’m confident that when Ellicott City celebrates its 500th anniversary, people will point back to this year and say that community fixed it. They got it right,” Kittleman said.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...

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