Town fights H20 plight

Stream: Responding to erosion under Ellicott City's Main Street, officials try to develop a plan with business owners to avert a building collapse. Officials trying to erode fears of flood, collapse

January 25, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Pieces of Ellicott City's historic Main Street are in danger of collapsing because of erosion from a stream that runs under and around the buildings that make up the popular Howard County tourist attraction.

"The symptoms [of a collapse] are all there," said Jim Irvin, the county's director of public works. "It's a question of where and to what degree."

Irvin said he could not predict how long the structures will remain standing without repair. Some might give way during the next large flood or storm, he said.

Any collapse could block the stream and lead to damage from flooding that would affect much of the lower end of the steeply winding street, which attracts nearly 18,000 visitors each year. Especially at risk are properties near the bottom, including the B&O Railroad Station Museum and Riverside Roastery and Espresso Cafe.

As worrisome as the erosion is the question of who will fix it. Irvin estimates that it would cost at least $750,000 to fix retaining walls and the foundations of several buildings that have deteriorated through years of wear caused by the flow of water and floods through the narrow-channeled stream, called the Hudson-Tiber Channel.

Howard County officials have known about the danger since 1992, when it was discovered during a county-commissioned study.

That review found that the foundations of at least 22 structures - including buildings, walls and footbridges - needed repair. County planners have met privately with some of the affected property owners several times over the past 10 years in search of a solution, Irvin said.

The county would be willing to help defray the repair costs, Irvin said, but the government cannot pay for all of the work because much of the erosion has occurred on private property. Landowners were unable to agree on a repair plan at earlier meetings because the repairs will be costly and complicated, he added.

Main Street is one of several Howard County areas, including parts of Columbia, Elkridge and North Laurel, that lie in flood plains and "we can't protect all of them," Irvin explained.

After the failed meetings, the study lay dormant until this month, when Irvin presented it at a meeting of the Historic District Action Committee, which is drafting part of a new Ellicott City Master Plan.

"It's up to them to figure out how much of priority [Main Street] is," Irvin said.

After the meeting, committee leaders said they will try to raise awareness of the problem and attempt to find a solution that will appeal to Main Street's business owners.

"This is something everyone can rally around," said Janet Kusterer, who is co-chairwoman of the Historic District Action Committee. "Promoting this problem has moved to the top of our priority list."

Despite the apparent danger, motivating the community to act might prove daunting. Even some committee members say they have been unaware of the threat. "I hadn't even heard about it," said Lisa Mason-Chaney, the director of the B&O Railroad Station Museum and a committee member.

The 1992 study found that one of the stone retaining walls that surround the museum had been weakened by "cracked and/or missing mortar joints, various forms of vegetation growth in the joints, and undermining of the foundation, resulting in dislocated or missing stone."

Nearby structures, including the museum, appear to use the wall "as an integral part of the buildings structural support," according to the study prepared by Greenman-Pederson Inc., a Laurel planning, engineering and architectural consulting firm.

Still, Mason-Chaney said that it would take a while for the study to "sink in" and that she would probably need to walk the length of the river and view the erosion to believe the study entirely.

Her skepticism seems to be shared by many who own real estate on Main Street.

Many of the buildings are more than 100 years old and have withstood several large floods and a fire in 1999, "so [erosion] isn't something we'd worry about," said Enalee Bounds, owner of Ellicott's County Store. Property owners have developed a cavalier attitude toward natural disasters, said Jared Spahn, a contractor who is president of the Ellicott City Business Association.

Spahn, who is constructing a building on Main Street that will have the only flood-proof flooring on the street, said many believe "natural catastrophes are not something to worry about."

Most business owners said they can't afford the extra expense of foundation repairs. "We're mom-and-pop stores; we can't absorb the cost of making repairs like that," said Brenda Franz, owner of the Attic Antique's and Things, which overlooks the stream.

"Repairs would put us right out of business," she said, staring out of her window at the flowing water.

All property owners will have to participate, if repairs are to successfully deter danger from structural collapse, Irvin said. If even one owner fails to make repairs and the owner's building collapses, it could block the stream and lead to flooding, which would endanger the entire area, Irvin said.

Irvin said the community might be able to attract funds from foundations or charitable groups.

The Preservation Howard County group could put the area on its annual top 10 endangered-structure list, which could attract extra attention, said group President Mary Catherine Cochran. But first the community will have to be convinced that action is necessary. County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents the Ellicott City area, said recently: "If we were in imminent danger, I'm sure ... we would have been notified," he said.

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