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Deep Dive: Ellicott City’s Ban On New Development

Damage from the 2018 floods on Main Street, Ellicott City, Md.

Ellicott City’s historic downtown was hit with more than 8 inches of rain in just two hours on May 27. It was inundated by 6 feet of water, just days before a new flood alert system was set to become operational.

For the seat of Howard County, it was a shocking reprise; less than two years earlier, the town flooded in what experts called a once-in-a-thousand-years anomaly. The floods claimed the lives of three people.

Blaming the floods on real estate development in the area, residents called for a freeze on new construction. A one-year moratorium on development went into effect in July. Though developments that were already in progress were allowed to continue, the county halted all permitting for projects that had not yet been fully approved.

An estimated 600 units of housing in the town have been halted until the end of the moratorium, which developers speculate could be extended if the community experiences more flooding this spring.

Residents argued that, rather than letting the ground absorb rain, new developments around Howard County have funneled rainwater into storm drains that feed into local streams running through downtown Ellicott City.

Damage to buildings in downtown Ellicott City after the 2016 floods.

Though the Howard County Council unanimously approved the one-year freeze, the decision was not without its detractors. The Maryland Building Industry Association released a statement stating that new developments are not to blame and that the moratorium “ignores the lessons from previous flood studies.” 

When the moratorium is finally lifted, developers around Ellicott City and Howard County may be subject to more stringent rules and closer oversight when it comes to drainage and environmental impact studies.

Ellicott City’s historic downtown has since reopened, but its future remains murky. While Federal Emergency Management Agency funding has covered the cost of some prevention mechanisms upstream, the community still fears more flooding. Some safety measures have called for the demolition of buildings that date to the early 1800s, a decision that has angered local preservationists.