Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Task Force Majeure

Last week, County Executive Allan Kittleman announced the creation of an Advisory Group "to prioritize projects to control flooding in Historic Ellicott City."  Based on what I've been able to gather, this 10-member group will advise the Administration on flood mitigation projects for future budgets, solicit public input related to the same, and seek out secondary sources of revenue (i.e., grants) for such projects.

As someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and discussing this issue, I can tell you that Ellicott City flooding is one of the most misunderstood issues in Howard County, particularly as it relates to flooding at the bottom of the hill.  This is most plainly shown by the photographs used to convey the devastation of Ellicott City flooding, such as the one used by the Flier in their coverage of this group.  There is not much, if anything, anyone can do to prevent flooding from the Patapsco River.  So showing pictures of flooding near the bridge is like leaving the stock photo in the frame you bought at Michael's.  It shows something, but probably not what you intended to display.

The real issue with flooding is further uphill, along the "West End" of Main Street.  There are approximately 5-7 residences and 2-3 businesses (mostly heavy commercial) that are threatened by insufficient natural infrastructure, deteriorating flood walls, and small streams that over-flow quickly in heavy storms.  This represents the area with greatest opportunity for mitigation, with the store-fronts in between West End and the Patapsco hanging in the balance of "what can be saved".

And, as may be expected, there is not a tremendous amount of political will to save "5-7 residences and 2-3 businesses (mostly heavy commercial)."  I have attended numerous meetings between (Ulman) Administration staff and these residents to look at how the flooding models answered two questions: how much would these flood projects cost? And what effect would they have on flooding?  The repeated answers were "very expensive" and "not much".  Ken Ulman recognized this when he purchased the Bickley property and offered to buy the homes of many of their neighbors.  It was cheaper to buy people out of the flood zone than make it not flood.

In this respect, the County Executive Kittleman's mission statement for the Advisory Group is interesting: "to prioritize projects to control flooding in Historic Ellicott City."  Is the intent of this group to scrutinize and critique future budgets as they relate to the prioritization of flood projects? Is this a watchdog group?  Because otherwise what is the purpose?  If Ellicott City flooding is a priority, the County Executive holds all the cards for making flood solutions a reality.

Looking at the names of those put on the Advisory Group, I think the County Executive has the tiger by the tail.  It was the full intent and purpose of the County Executive to include Ellicott City residents and business owners, which can be contrasted to a group made up of surveyors, architects, flood experts, and policy-makers.  Please understand, this is not a critique as much as it is an observation that the Executive may have hitched his saddle to an unfriendly steed.  I know the members selected for this group and I would fairly say I know them better than the County Executive does.  I am confident that he will know them just as well soon enough.

Referring to those meetings noted above, the Ulman Administration went to great efforts to work with West End community members and the "Ellicott City Flood Solutions" group to identify common ground between projects that would have a meaningful impact on flooding and those that would be expensive, but have little effect.  Despite all this effort, there were "Ulman Turned His Back on Ellicott City Flooding" signs on Main Street by April 2014.  This Advisory Group is going to be pushing the accelerator on projects and will be very unlikely to carry the company line.  You can be sure that the County Executive is correct when he says "this is not another study group."  Maybe more correct than he knows.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!