Howard County approves plan to demolish some Ellicott City buildings for flood mitigation

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Howard County has voted to move forward with a plan to demolish some buildings in downtown Ellicott City. It is part of a five-year plan to fix chronic and deadly flooding problems in the area.

The county began serious flood mitigation research after flash flooding ravaged the town in 2016. But a second major flood event this past May forced city and county leaders to look seriously about fast-forwarding a plan.

"Finally, we're going to stop studying and start doing things," said Frank Durantaye, an Ellicott City business owner and resident.

Durantaye has been pushing for major structural change since the city's West End flooded in 2011.

"[Planners] looked at putting in retention ponds back then and nothing was done," he said.

Durantaye's home and business were hit by each flood event. He said it's not just floodwaters the city has to contend with during heavy rain events, but the violent rapids that engulf parts of the downtown, which is built on a slope.

"It's a major drop," he explained. "So when the water hits the street, it's a freight train."

The plan includes stormwater mitigation above the town to reduce the amount of water that flows down, and demolition of buildings that sit on or close to the Tiber to widen the channel as it flows to the Patapsco River.

"We have to enlarge these choke points so the water can flow," Durantaye added. "And we have to retain the water on top."

In total, 10 buildings in historic downtown, and nine other buildings would be razed. But the demolition wouldn't fully mitigate the flooding, which has drawn concern.

"You'll lose the historic buildings, but still end up with four to six feet of water on Main Street at a speed and velocity that someone couldn't stand in," explained Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland. "It's still life threatening."

Flooding hit eight to 12 feet on Main Street in May.

Preservation Maryland is instead advocating for alternatives like underground boring, which would create a tunnel system to dump floodwaters into the Patapsco.

"We need to be really logical and analytical about the way we approach particularly the demolition piece," added Redding.

But residents and business owners said time is up.

"It's not perfect, but it's what we have to do," countered Bert Wilson, who owns property across from the future demolition site. "We've been in flood groups and studies since 2011. There is no more time for studying this. There are people who can comment on it, but their neck is not in the noose. Ours is."

Wilson said his building was eight inches shy of being deemed structurally unsafe. He still hasn't reopened his business.

"If you have been flooded twice in two years, would you rebuild a third time? Or would you wait and see what happens?" he said.

The plan comes with a $50 million price tag. The county expects to get $20 to $30 million in state and federal funding. The rest of the funds would come from the county's contingency fund and money previously earmarked for technology infrastructure upgrades, athletic field improvements and another fire station. Those funds add up to $16.8 million. The county would borrow the rest - about $15,775,000.

There is no word yet on when construction would begin.