Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) on Thursday directed the county’s Department of Public Works to “explore flood mitigation options that do not require full scale demolition” of buildings — even though demolition was a core piece of his predecessor’s controversial plan.
Former county executive Allan H. Kittleman (R), who lost to Ball in November, said razing 10 buildings in the historic downtown district was the best way to make the area safer, following two devastating floods in two years.
Ball, who on the campaign trail described Kittleman’s plan as too hastily put together, said public safety is also his top priority but that he wants to take into account options “that consider the desire by many to retain as much of Old Ellicott City’s charm and history as possible.”
“We must make sure that we are not using a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is necessary,” Ball said in announcing the first phase of his flood mitigation plan, which he titled “Safe and Sound.”
The Democrat pledged to bolster Howard County’s emergency public alert system, increase debris removal from streams and create a matching grant program for flood mitigation projects in areas that were particularly hard-hit.
Ball has previously said he would move forward with parts of the plan put forward by Kittleman and then-County Council member Jon Weinstein (D-District 1), who lost his bid for reelection in the Democratic primary. Those elements include constructing upstream floodwater-retention facilities and continuing conversations that were started by Kittleman’s administration about acquiring vulnerable buildings on lower Main Street.
Weinstein said he “didn’t hear anything new” in Ball’s announcement. Efforts to improve the alert system are underway , he said, and he and Kittleman previously proposed a matching grant program, which has already been funded in the budget.
He said Ball’s decision to leave the 10 buildings standing, for now, would create unnecessary risk in the event of another major storm.
Preservationists say removing the buildings would fundamentally change the historic nature of Ellicott City, which sits below steep hills at the convergence of four creeks that flow into the Patapsco River.
But many of the business owners hardest hit by the deadly flooding in 2016 and 2018 support the Kittleman-Weinstein plan.
Eight of the 10 buildings slated for demolition are shuttered. Many of the business owners who used to occupy them say they are too scared to return and want Ball to act quickly so that visitors feel safe in the historic district, where they say foot traffic has slowed since the Memorial Day flood.
Ball said the county will remove debris from streams around Ellicott City within two weeks and track future removal efforts on a public map that will launch next year.
The matching grant program is a pilot effort for projects involving homes or businesses that includes $150,000 in funding and will be evaluated after its first year. The maximum match is $5,000. Ball said he would work with state Del.-elect Courtney Watson (D) and state Sen.-elect Katie Fry Hester (D) to introduce legislation in the General Assembly to access more funding for such projects.
Ball did not say whether demolition was permanently off the table and said the plan’s next phase will be introduced in 2019, after public input.
The county executive also said he is seeking a full-time position in Howard’s Economic Development Authority to act as an ombudsman for Main Street businesses in Ellicott City. The staffer would promote tourism and connect business owners with resources at the local, state and federal level.