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How come a blind eye has been turned on conditions which set up Ellicott City for more destruction? How come so much faith has been put in the State’s new storm water management regulations? How come each new development plan is evaluated in isolation rather than looking at the cumulative effect of removing trees and other vegetation and replacing them with impervious surfaces?

Recovering from the flooding in Ellicott City could be a true “Watershed” event (no pun intended—but admittedly a double entendre). Having witnessed the destructive forces which ended lives and livelihoods, homes and hopes, our County Executive provided the leadership to get the residents and shop owners through the first incredibly difficult week.  To those of us watching TV and social media accounts, the focus on the safety and welfare of those directly affected was well orchestrated and compassionate. It was comforting to see the swift response from the Council and our State and federal elected officials. They all echoed the commitment that Ellicott City WILL be rebuilt and that every effort will be made to support those who have lost so much.

The heroism demonstrated during the event and the outpouring of public support in the form of donations and volunteering is something of which we can all be proud. As we collectively undertake the clean-up and the restoration I hope ‘Never again’ will be both the rallying cry—and the public policy going forward.

Some uncomfortable truths must be acknowledged and some hard decisions made. It will be unrealistic to think that modern technology or never-present unlimited resources can prevent the situation from occurring again– unless there are significant changes in development policy and in mitigating existing conditions.

Members of the development community would argue that their increasingly dense developments along steep slopes throughout the watershed do not contribute to flooding. After all, those new Storm Water Management (SWM) regulations demand that ALL storm water be retained on the parcel to be developed. Applying “best practices” is believed to assure that. Unfortunately that is simply NOT proving to be the case.

seasaw3The regulations appear inadequate, even when followed precisely. They are inadequate when they are first installed and even more inadequate over time when they are not properly maintained. The well-intended regulations appear to have seriously overestimated the ability of retention ponds while underestimating the changing weather patterns which are yielding ‘high-capacity’ storms. The regulations are grossly inadequate when developers are given administrative adjustments, alternative compliance (waivers), or ‘a pass’ for having made a good effort.  Shouldn’t there be a simple “does-this-make-sense” test applied?  When the alleged solution to retaining storm water on a parcel includes dozens and dozens of dry wells, plus a sizable retention pond, plus underground storage tanks, and a myriad of micro-bio-retention features one just might want to ask the hard question:  Is this parcel really capable and suitable for development at the density requested?

While owners have a right to develop their property, that property should be analyzed first for its capability (are there steep slopes, is it in a flood plain, are there rock outcroppings, are the soils stable?).  THEN one should consider: What is it suitable for given its capability.  But even this analysis will fail if considered strictly as an isolated case, not in relationship to what is present and/or proposed for surrounding properties and for those feeding into the same watershed.

Some cases in point re: ponds, bio-retention features, etc. for SWM

  • The storm water pond in the HoCo Housing Commission’s much touted Burgess Mill Station complex completely failed during the storm, adding its water to that cascading on to Main Street below. The embankment on which St. Luke’s Church sits was horribly undermined by the fast moving water. (On a trip several weeks ago down Ellicott Mills Drive I had observed the road bed being undermined by water at the curbs as a result of sheet flow down the steep road. Perhaps squeezing 198 residences on 18 acres “suspended above the Tiber River” was not really in the public’s interest.
  • The ‘Million Dollar Stair Case’ SWM area had walls blown out and ponds breeched.
  • The Riverwalk townhouse development in North Laurel was constructed under the new regulations and includes pervious driveways and many, many SWM ponds and rain gardens. Yet it has regularly produced seepage across the Savage Trail below and into the Little Patuxent.  While only 1/3 the amount of rain fell in the Savage area compared with EC, the flow and erosion from the development were evident.

water pipeThere were numerous incidents of homes flooding beyond downtown EC. I personally can’t fathom the need to remove mulch from my ceilings, but this was necessary in a home in the Valley Meade development along Route 40 West in EC.  During a chance encounter with a resident of this long established neighborhood of homes on half acre lots, I was told the situation worsens with each additional development upstream.  While recognizing that the rainfall amount and intensity were epic, this long time resident made a comment that bears repeating often as Ellicott City reconstruction moves forward:

“You can’t have a thousand year storm every five years.”

How quickly we forget what she was referring to.  The 6+ inches which fell in two hours was a record breaker. But less than 5 years ago, on Sept. 5, 2011 nearly 5 inches in just over 2 hours occurred, bringing destruction to Main Street.  Look back at http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/ellicott-city/ph-ho-cf-flooding-update-0911-20140911-story.html for proposed solutions generated–but only minimally implemented in the years after that event.

How frustrating and sad that anyone speaking out against development—private or public- is derisively considered a NIMBY. Several recent public input sessions jumped to mind as I watched the flash flood:

  1. Planning Board testimony against development proposed for the Lacey property which sits on narrow Church Road high above the EC Court House and Patuxent Female Institute. Does stripping the trees and building on the steep slopes of a parcel that actively feeds to the Patapsco watershed make sense? Are we willing to add that risk?
  2. Howard Bike Plan testimony against running the path through Allview Estates on the banks of the Little Patuxent. Warnings from a homeowner concerned about the flash flooding which occurs there with some regularity was simply ignored and demonized.

WHAT HAVE WE BEEN DOING WRONG?  Increasing density has increased potential danger by placing more pressure on storm water features to sufficiently retain higher levels of run-off from development sites.  In effect we have been subsidizing developers by giving them the maximum density in any zone and then allowing them to import additional density.  We’ve been passing the cost on to the public. When the added cost includes the loss of life and livelihood it’s simply too high.

WHAT CHANGES COULD BE DONE IMMEDIATELY TO NOT WORSEN THE SITUATION? As a matter of policy, consider the density prescribed for any zone as a maximum, not as a guarantee.   Eliminate density overlay zones.  Stop density transfer.  Make it clear that it is not the job of the DPZ to assist a developer in reaching the maximum density to which they feel entitled. Eliminate multiple designations of open space. (One can’t play ball with their child in the middle of a storm water management feature.) Stop pretending that homeowners associations will have the resources, knowledge, or interest in maintaining the SWM features turned over to them by the developers.  View all requests for alternative compliance (waivers), administrative adjustments, conditional uses, and variances through an “Ellicott City Lens.”

tipping pointI’m confident that the front row seat the County Executive and council members have had in assessing the extreme damage and devastation has contributed to the wise leadership decisions they have made. I can only hope that leadership will extend to making very necessary changes in our development policy. One emergency power that was probably not included in the Emergency Declaration is the ability to put an immediate stop on consideration of any development seeking to build on slopes and seeking to strip vegetation in a watershed.

Wishing won’t make it so. Future disasters will not be averted without significant change in our land use policy. County Exec Kittleman and Council member Weinstein had been addressing EC’s flooding issues prior to this latest event.  But so far, Council member Terrasa is the only one willing to look at the big picture and admit that development is occurring at too high a density in HoCo.

 Come back another day when we’ll consider paths to remediation of mistakes made in the past –and meet me on the high road,

Susan