Flood map change disputed

Elkridge: Residents of an old community are upset to learn their homes have been added to the county's flood plain plan.

October 28, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF


An article in yesterday's Howard County edition about a change in the flood plain boundary in Elkridge's Harwood Park community indicated that about 12 homeowners would be affected. In addition, more than 50 properties were included in the new zone.

Brian Bailey has lived in Harwood Park all his life.

So has his dad. His grandparents also lived in the Elkridge community. "My boy is the fourth generation of us living in this neighborhood," he said.

Bailey, 39, bought the property next-door to his parents and built his house. He then purchased additional land nearby, believing his children could continue the tradition or perhaps use the land as an investment.

But now he is not so sure. Bailey and some other residents learned only a few months ago that Howard County officials had changed the boundaries of the 100-year flood plain to include their homes. The change quashes plans for new decks, garages and additions for about a dozen homes in the community.

It also puts an end to the Bailey family's tradition. Since the devastation of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, Howard County has strictly prohibited new construction or expansion of existing homes on property within the 100-year flood plain.

"If we keep development out of the flood plain, we can let the flood plain flood," said Howard Saltzman, chief of the division of storm water management for the Department of Public Works. "Flooding is only a problem when there are houses there. The best way to reduce the hazard is to not create one in the first place."

Based on a 1997 study, Howard County officials have determined that about a dozen additional homes in Harwood Park near a branch of the Deep Run lie within the 100-year flood plain, which means they stand a 1-in-100 chance of flooding in a given year during a severe storm.

The homeowners don't deny that they live within the path of high waters - in fact, they say that flooding has worsened in recent years. But they resent the county removing their property rights rather than restricting further development in the Deep Run watershed, which they believe contributes to increased runoff.

"If you want growth, you have to take care of the people that are here, too," said Betsy McMillion of the Harwood Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, whose home is within the new boundary. She wrote a brief history of the community, which according to land records is more than 100 years old.

Since the 1980s, Howard has been updating the county's flood maps, Saltzman said. Deep Run was the last to be updated.

Several things triggered the most recent re-examination of the Deep Run watershed, he said. Most important, new computer models predict the flood-plain area more precisely than earlier ones. Officials in Howard and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which also maintains boundaries, say the change isn't debatable: Methods of measuring and predicting flooding have improved since the zone was established in 1975.

"It's not a question of do we do this or not," Saltzman said. "It's, `Did we do this correctly?' "

According to the calculations, the correct boundary includes a larger part of Harwood Park. Counties are not required to notify those affected, he said.

Residents first learned about the changes when a neighbor, Tracy Fadrowski, raised the issue at a community meeting last year. Fadrowski lives in the Harthorn Avenue house where she moved when she was 5. Her parents live next door on land they subdivided.

Fadrowski, who had planned to build a retaining wall on the edge of her property and perhaps a deck, found out about the change from a neighbor who had trouble selling her house because it was within the flood zone.

"I was surprised because she told me they had been going by that for five years," Fadrowski said.

The Harwood Park group then began to research the issue.

The Deep Run Watershed Study, first commissioned in 1992 but revised in 1996 and 1997, used topography derived from aerial photographs. The study recommended that the county confirm the results with a field survey of the Harwood Park neighborhood - which the county did not do.

Saltzman said it would be "exorbitantly expensive" to survey all the flood areas in Howard. The Deep Run watershed alone contains more than 36 miles of stream within 19.8 square miles, according to the study. There are more than 30 stream crossings.

Harwood Park, however, is one area where a field survey could make a difference, he said.

"The land there is so flat," said Saltzman, noting that the elevations change only slightly over a large area.

Public Works routinely helps homeowners survey their property to apply for "letters of map amendment" of FEMA maps, Saltzman said. If the lowest point of a house is above the flood plain elevation, it will not be included in the zone and property owners would not be required to purchase flood insurance.

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