Ellicott City Flooding Prompts Discussion on Land Use & Stormwater Changes

Baltimore Sun article (2016-08-13) reported that Howard County is grappling with the flooding and runoff issues facing Ellicott City – brought into stark relief by the recent devastating flooding of the City’s historic main street. The County is considering proposals that would limit or prohibit further development above the City and require stronger stormwater management requirements. The article detailed that the County has acknowledged the flooding problem:

As development has increased on the hilly terrain overlooking the 244-year-old river town, the amount of rain rushing off rooftops and parking lots has also grown — making Ellicott City’s low-lying Main Street more vulnerable to intense rains that meteorologists say are hitting the region more frequently. …

Howard County officials insist that development by itself cannot be blamed for a dramatic act of nature, but they and residents believe the devastating floods in July and another in 2011 send a clear message: Heavy rains will come again, and something must change. …

County officials say older developments built decades ago have more significant problems with runoff. In fact, some newer redevelopments improve antiquated stormwater management systems because any project built after 1985 is subject to runoff restrictions.

“The difficulty this community has is it’s at the bottom of a funnel,” said Jim Caldwell, who is in charge of community sustainability in Howard County. “The watershed is very steep. It’s all heading down to the Patapsco River.”

While virtually everyone agrees that new policies are needed to minimize future flooding occurrences, the article noted that there is debate about which policies need to be changed:

“When you think you’re going higher and higher up the hill and insisting on being allowed to develop on steep slopes, to squeeze in just a couple more units, you really have to question the wisdom of what we’re doing,” said Susan Garber, a Savage resident who writes about county issues in a blog called “How Come?” …

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, said it’s “myopic” to believe development hasn’t played a role in flooding.

“What they suggest is this is an act of God or a fluke and therefore nobody can be blamed. … The stormwater problems in Ellicott City are the result of storms, that’s true, but the problem is there is no recovery area to absorb intensive flows,” Tutman said. “That’s something the county really needs to step up for and plan for.” …

Katie Maloney, chief lobbyist for the Fulton-based Maryland Building Industry Association, said limiting development in Ellicott City isn’t necessary. She argues that redeveloping older properties is one of the solutions to the runoff problem.

“Much of the problem we have is because of all the properties built before the stormwater regulations,” she said. “All that water just runs off. There are no storm drains, no ponds; there is nothing to stop that water from flowing into the street. In Ellicott City, it’s a very old area.”

The article also detailed the short-term and long-term response of County Executive Allan Kittleman, including funding and the creation of a workgroup to recommend policy changes:

“There’s nothing we can do to stop six inches of rain,” Kittleman said. “But we can have an impact on other storms.”

His first budget — for the 2016 fiscal year — included $2.5 million to start knocking off $18 million worth of flood control projects in the Main Street area. He followed up with $2.8 million for fiscal 2017, the current budget year that began July 1.

Kittleman also created the Historic Ellicott City Flood Workgroup to recommend next steps for flood prevention and mitigation. …

The work group’s recommendations for next steps include improving existing stormwater controls, such as increasing the size of underground pipes and stormwater holding ponds; clearing debris that builds up in the Tiber and Hudson tributaries, and adding alarms that would sound when flows increase in those streams.

The group also called for reducing the amount of impervious surfaces, by turning developed places into natural areas, and for stronger efforts to ensure that new developments don’t harm the environment. …

Caldwell said some county officials are considering radical steps, including requiring developments to build for extreme flooding and restricting cars from Main Street.

The article also stated that the workgroup is debating whether to recommend development limitations.

“It is a touchy subject,” said Lori Lilly, a watershed management and planning consultant who serves on the work group. “Nobody wants to hear that we don’t want any new development in the watershed.”

Instead of restricting development, Lilly and others support incentives to encourage landowners to preserve forested hillsides. “You can’t replace woods with a stormwater management practice and it be the same thing,” she said.