On May 27, 2018, 666 days after the July 30, 2016 Ellicott City Flood, the historic downtown neighborhood experienced something no one ever thought would happen for another generation. Freshly recovered from the 2016 flood that decimated much of historic downtown Ellicott City, it was unthinkable that another “Hundred Year Flood” could occur so soon. Time would prove otherwise.
In response to the May flood, the Howard County Council unanimously approved emergency legislation placing a moratorium on development in the Tiber Branch and Plumtree Branch watersheds, which includes the historic district and the surrounding areas. The legislation, known as the Tiber Branch Watershed and Plumtree Branch Watershed Safety Act prohibits Howard County from issuing certain permits or zoning approvals for properties located mostly north and west of the historic district. The moratorium is similar to legislation proposed by Councilman Jon Weinstein after the 2016 flood, but expands its scope to include a larger area believed to have contributed to the 2018 flood. Ostensibly the purpose of the moratorium is to give the County time to analyze the impacts of both the 2016 and 2018 floods, and to propose new zoning, building, and stormwater management policies aimed at preventing repeat flooding. Many of our Howard County neighbors are curious as to what this legislation does and does not prohibit. Read below to find out how the moratorium may affect you.
What areas are affected by the moratorium?
The areas covered by the moratorium are primarily the neighborhoods to the north, south, and west of Old Ellicott City. Specifically, the moratorium prohibits any new development in the Tiber Branch Watershed and the Plumtree Branch Watershed. The Tiber Branch Watershed includes the areas between St. Johns Lane to the west, Montgomery Road to the South, New Cut Road to the East, and Court House Drive to the North. Neighborhoods affected include Autumn Hill, Stonecrest, and Old Ellicott City. The Plumtree Branch Watershed includes the areas west of St. Johns Lane, as far north as I-70, west towards Grey Rock Drive, and south to around Columbia Road. Neighborhoods affected include Dunloggin, Valley Mede and Chatham.
Maps of the affected areas are at the end of the document. Tiber Branch Watershed Exhibit A. Plumtree Branch Watershed Exhibit B.
What kinds of development activities are prohibited?
The moratorium is a sweeping prohibition on almost all new development activity. As long as the moratorium is in effect, the County’s Department of Inspections, Licenses, and Permits may not issue any building or grading permits for any property that drains in whole or in part into the Tiber Branch Watershed or the Plumtree Branch Watershed. Furthermore, it also prohibits the County Council from passing any zoning regulation text amendments, the Zoning Board from taking any final action on any petition for approval of a development plan or map amendment, and the Hearing Authority from holding any hearings or issuing any decisions on pending applications and petitions for any properties in the affected area.
The scope of the moratorium goes beyond simply preventing the construction of new buildings in the affected area. The restriction on building permits means that neighbors who live in the affected neighborhood will not be able to make certain renovations, like building a home extension, if they change the square footage of impervious surfaces – land covered by a building, pavement, or other coverings that does not let water get absorbed into the ground. Neighbors may also not be able to build or expand a patio, construct a shed larger than 200 square feet, or install a pool. Some solar panel installations may also be prohibited, depending on how and where the neighbor plans to install them. The moratorium may also limit some types of landscaping, such as building a retaining wall.
The moratorium on zoning approvals in the affected area includes actions that range from large scale developments to the approval of any conditional uses. In particular, this may limit a resident’s ability to open a new business, including a home business, or convert a portion of their home into an in-law suite, each of which may require a conditional use permit.
What kinds of development activities are allowed?
The moratorium prohibits the issuance of new building and grading permits, but not HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and sign permits. Neighbors in the affected areas can still replace air conditioners – certainly a necessary action during these sweltering summer months – and heaters, come fall. Since activities that do not expand the amount of impervious surfaces are also exempt from the moratorium, so roof replacements and decks will not be impacted.
In addition, the moratorium makes a limited exception for properties affected by the flood. The reconstruction and repair of improvements on any property in the affected area as a result of the floods or other natural disasters are permitted as long as there is no change in the square footage of the impervious surfaces on the property. Thus, building owners in Old Ellicott City will be able to continue the restoration of historic downtown without issue, as long as amount of impervious surface is not increased.
How long will the moratorium last?
The moratorium has a term of one year and will expire on July 27, 2019. The County Council could decide to extend the moratorium at the end of this period if it believes it is necessary to do so.
Where can I read the moratorium?
A copy of the moratorium is available at the following link:
For neighbors that live in and around Old Ellicott City, the moratorium may have a significant impact. As with most laws, there are certain sections that remain open to interpretation as to whether certain activities are permitted or prohibited. If you are concerned about a project you had planned, our land use attorneys, Michael Weiland and Catherine Robinson, can help you explore your options.
Michael Weiland is an attorney in the Business Transactions and Real Estate practice group at Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny, LLC. For questions about this article or other business or real estate related matters, please contact Michael at 410.995.5800