Ellicott City trying to clean up its act

Rubbish: Hampered by geography and bureaucracy, the historic town can't seem to solve its trash problems.

May 05, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The dirty word in downtown Ellicott City is trash.

Say it on Main Street and people will groan, grumble or sigh -- it's a subject with which merchants are all too familiar.

There's tension because some business owners put out their trash bags long before the Department of Public Works is scheduled to pick them up.

There are debates over where Main Street's cast-iron trash cans should sit and if there ought to be more of them.

There are public reminders for merchants to sweep up litter in front of their shops.

"It seems like all my life trash has been an issue down here -- and I guess it'll never go away," said Ed Lilley, owner of The Christmas Company on Main Street and president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation.

Much of the problem is because of downtown Ellicott City's unusual design. Few Main Street businesses have alleys for storing their trash, neither is there room behind many of the buildings.

Granite hills are close behind merchants on one side of the road; behind businesses on the other side is the Tiber Branch river.

Trash is far from flooding the streets, but the subject is on people's minds because of the nature of the place. The historic area is a popular tourist attraction that depends in part on its quaintness.

If Main Street looks messy, "it does not speak well for us," Lilley said.

It's a safety issue, too. The fire that destroyed five businesses and four apartments on Main Street in November was ignited by cigarette ashes flicked into a box of trash.

On any given day, visitors to the area will likely see some litter on the sidewalks -- small items such as cigarette butts and gum wrappers. It's also a good bet that trash bags and empty cardboard boxes will be piled outside at least a few businesses, whether or not a pickup is scheduled for the next morning.

Public works picks up trash four times a week on Main Street, although some merchants opted for twice-weekly service.

Bob Bernstein, president of the Ellicott City Residents' Association, has noticed the garbage problem during Sunday morning strolls on Main Street. One day, "there was trash overflowing every trash can in the area to the point that it was on the street," he said.

"I remember thinking that it would not take much to empty the trash once late Saturday so that it did not overflow on Sunday," Bernstein said. "For an area that depends upon tourist dollars, that should be a no-brainer."

But the solution appears elusive.

In other places, businesses usually store trash in Dumpsters. But only a few Main Street merchants do, partly because the area has no space for the big bins and partly because it would be a logistical headache to get permission for more. Approval would be required from the Historic District Commission and the county.

"Dumpsters will not work in [historic] Ellicott City," said Betsy McMillion, public education coordinator for the county's Department of Public Works. "The few that are there have been there for a while."

Someone used to come by regularly to keep Main Street tidy -- so long ago that people don't remember if it was a county employee or someone paid by the merchants. But there's no movement afoot to hire another sidewalk sweeper.

Even the idea of extra trash cans is an "ongoing bone of contention," Lilley said. Some merchants wouldn't mind having one in front of their stores, but others hate the idea.

Plus, the heavy cans, designed to fit in with the historic town, cost $900 apiece.

That leaves Ellicott City where it's been for a while: trash, one; people, zero.

"I call it `trash wars,' " said McMillion, who was only partly joking. "It's very frustrating."

McMillion gets entreaties for the county to step in and clean up. But part of the problem -- such as dirty sidewalks -- is the responsibility of the property owners, she said. If the various Ellicott City groups agreed on a course of action, that would be a step in the right direction, she said.

"There is no one solution to solve all the problems down there," she said. "It's going to take everyone working together."

Enalee Bounds, who owns Ellicott's Country Store, tries to do her part by sweeping up outside every morning, and she sees other merchants doing the same. But she's not convinced the trash battle will be won.

"I've been here 38 years, and believe me, we've thought of everything," she said.

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