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As decision nears on Ellicott City flood mitigation bill, a mix of hope and ‘dilemma’

A flood-damaged road in Ellicott City on May 29.
A flood-damaged road in Ellicott City on May 29. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Sally Tennant recalls spending day after day salvaging what was left of her Ellicott City shop after the May flood.

Her process was tedious, sorting through mud and debris for pottery, jewelry and other merchandise. If an item appeared redeemable, she washed it, rinsed it, scrubbed it with a toothbrush.

“Sometimes you can’t even see what the hell it is until you wash it,” she said.

Discoveries, her store on the lower half of Main Street that opened 38 years ago, was one of many destroyed during the flood that left one person dead. More than seven inches of rain overflowed the Tiber and Hudson river tributaries, rushing down Main Street and leaving behind a thick layer of mud.

Months later, Tennant is one of many shop owners figuring out whether she will ever be able to reopen.

On Monday, the Howard County Council is scheduled to vote on a bill that would allocate nearly $17 million toward a five-year flood control plan. The bills represent part of a $50 million package — advocated by County Executive Allan Kittleman and Jon Weinstein, Ellicott City’s representative on the council — that would implement a massive flood mitigation effort.

The package includes culvert projects, expansion of a channel for the Tiber River, creation of new open space along the Patuxent and the controversial proposal to purchase and raze 19 buildings, including 10 in the historic district. Officials say removing buildings would create an open space to deepen and expand the channel to slow floodwaters. The county anticipates $20 million to $30 million in state and federal funding for the $50 million plan, according to Paul Milton, an aide to Kittleman.

Tennant’s building, where she maintained her shop and an apartment, would be among those taken.

She says the demolition plan leaves her with a “dilemma,” upending what she has worked her whole life to achieve. But she said flood mitigation efforts must happen as soon as possible, and the ongoing debate over demolition can’t slow that down.

“We’re out of time. We’ve been out of time,” she said. “If this is the plan, they need to start mitigation now.”

Demolition has been the most debated aspect of the Ellicott City plan. Weinstein and Kittleman have described it as necessary to secure a future for the historic district, but some preservationists have questioned it.

This past week, a survey conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy for Preservation Maryland said 74 percent of residents would support plans that don’t require tearing down buildings.

Kittleman and Weinstein responded in a statement, saying “it is hard to take seriously a five-minute poll that tries to explain years of study, analysis and dozens of scenarios that were considered.”

“While we appreciate Preservation Maryland’s mission, our mission first and foremost is to protect lives,” the statement said. “We will make our decision because it’s the best way to do that and to ensure a vibrant and thriving Ellicott City for centuries to come.”

The poll also indicated 43 percent of respondents did not believe the county should spend $50 million on a plan that would likely leave four to six feet of water during a catastrophic flood.

Tennant said she also has questions about whether the mitigation plan will succeed, and she’s not the only Main Street merchant weighing the future prospects.

After a career as a federal prosecutor, Donna Sanger fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2014 by opening Park Ridge Trading Co., inspired by childhood memories of her grandparents’ wholesale grocery store. After the May flood, Sanger’s inventory of specialty oils, salts, jams, salsas and sauces filled the pages of an insurance claim.

“It’s been an interesting, educational voyage with flood insurance,” she said.

Because her building also houses tenants, Sanger had a residential policy in 2016 when a flood hit. After 2016, she took out a commercial policy, believing it was worth the price to avoid losing everything again. She was right.

She has taken out a temporary lease on a property on the top half of Main Street, somewhere higher and drier, where she can continue to sell her specialty concoctions.

Things are different for Jeremy Scott. After the second flood, he knew one thing: He was done.

Charmed by Ellicott City’s quirky and artistic nature when he grew up in nearby Columbia, Scott began renting space for his shop, Cotton Duck Art and Apparel, in 2014. Two floods later, he’s had enough.

“After the first time, you literally hold your breath every time it starts to rain,” he said. “And I’d rather not have that anxiety.”

Tennant has anxiety about Ellicott City now, saying, “I’m too afraid to spend another night there.”

She does want to see what will happen next. She’s attended public meetings and briefing sessions, and she is eager to see a solid mitigation plan — as well as a plan that will limit future growth. She is among those who believe development upstream, based on decisions made many years ago, contributed mightily to the events of 2016 and this year.

“I’m a victim of Mother Nature and climate change,” she said. “But I do not — and never will — believe that what caused the extensive damage wasn’t man-made, controllable factors.”

While the council has approved a moratorium on new development, Tennant is worried it might be eased later if the sense of urgency isn’t maintained. She said the push for mitigation projects is a critical start.

“I hope it’s the beginning of something,” she said. “That beginning has to happen now.”

—Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Erin B. Logan contributed to this article.