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Ellicott City: Safe For A Safe House?

Ellicott City had a flood. Actually, it had 2 of them within 2 years. This isn’t a new problem for Ellicott City, which has seen its share of flooding since the 1800s. Some may think that the stated focus of solving the problem that is making it into the news is new, but it isn’t. Local government administrations have declared that they were going to solve the problem for as long as the oldest Howard Countian has lived on the earth.

It would be fair to say that this will be the first time that the newly-elected County Executive Dr. Calvin Ball has had a crack at being at the helm of solving the problem. It’s also fair to say that the 8 years that he made decisions while on the County Council helped craft, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, Howard County into what it is today. There are those who say that the best indicator of future behavior is past performance.

As many know, a controversial plan to address historic Ellicott City flooding was announced in the months before the last election. The plan, dubbed the “Kittleman/Weinstein” 5 year plan, centered around the acquisition and demolition of lower Main Street buildings along the Tiber River right before it empties into the Patapsco. The 2018 flood definitely made flood mitigation an election issue for each of the County Executive candidates, and the country was watching as the 2018 flood made national news. The fact that the community became polarized as a result of the distinct differences in opinion of how to handle the problem is well-documented in many other articles and on social media platforms. Emotions ran high as the “what’s proposed isn’t enough, let’s solve it” side clashed with the “we can’t wait any longer, let’s do something” side. Frustration that the place Money Magazine cited as the #4 place to live in the country in 2018 (63rd best place in 2017) continued to talk about the problem instead of solving it, was the invisible thread that bound both sides.

“Public Safety” was the mantra repeated by county legislators as it was insisted that the only way Ellicott City could have it was if the County bought the properties from the owners. County Exec candidate Ball voted against the 5 year plan. It’s been said that he did so because his proposed amendment wasn’t included.

Ball’s amendment wanted the following:

As it turns out, the information about appraised value of the properties IS something that Howard Countians should be concerned about. Ball’s amendment didn’t pass, due to the vote of 3-2 against. It did SOUND good though! Who would actually purchase property for more money than an appraisal said it was worth? Everyone knows that it’s financially irresponsible to buy for more than something is worth!

Right?? Let’s see how Howard County has done…

Turns out that lower Main building owners who approached the County about buying their property might have had it on good authority that the County will oblige. The County has a pattern of buying and then disposing of property that will be written about in a subsequent post. ONE is going to be discussed in this post. Turns out that Dr. Ball wasn’t the first one to suggest that the County’s ultimate solution to the flood problem be held out as an example for the country. County Executive Ball heard it told to him in 2013 by someone who testified to him and other Council members after damage to her home and a harrowing flood escape by helicopter due to Tropical Storm Lee.

The woman’s name is Michele Bickley, and that’s the Bickley house located at 8518 Frederick Road in Ellicott City. She and her husband bought their house on 8/23/11 for $395,000 They lived there about a week, and then a flood that must have overpowered the creek running at the back of the property caused them $75,000 worth of damage and the pregnant Mrs. Bickley to have to be helicoptered out to safety. This is NOT a lower Main property, remember. She had been told by her agent, title company and insurance company that she didn’t need flood insurance. She became part of work groups discussing the issue, and testified to Council in 2013 with her wishes for a safe Ellicott City.

On September 29, 2014, Howard County purchased the Bickley house for $500,000. Though it was put into Land Records as 10/14/2014 as can be seen here, the actual document shows a different date. And as you’ll also see, the house was purchased by the County and then transferred.

How much did it appraise for when it was bought by the County in 2014? $460,000. This is known because Alan Kittleman provided information to the County Council in support of a resolution that he wanted passed that would enable him to sell it, along with the Flier building and others, without having to advertise it. That’s also typical for how it’s done here in Howard County. It was Resolution 67-2015 where the following info was given to Ball and the other Council members who voted unanimously to dispose of a total of 4 properties that had an expected deficit and loss to the county of…. 1.8 million. Along with the information that shows a purchase for more than appraised value, there is also info discussing the county purchasing a building for 2.8 million that needs 3 times that amount to renovate it. They were purchased for “public use”, and are therefore subject to financing restrictions that you aren’t supposed to do.

When properties are not purchased for public use, they are ineligible for tax-exempt bond funding. That’s what the last administration said, and I’m sure that Dr. Ball is intimately familiar with it. So that leaves the County’s credit line, which comes as a surprise to many who weren’t aware that we had one (much less 2 of them).

When the property didn’t sell, it was ultimately given to the Howard County Housing Commission in 2016 for… $505,000! It was written that it was “no longer needed for a public purpose”, but no info can be found concerning the original public purpose for acquisition. Howard County Land Records (the Clerk) lists the transfer amount to be… ZERO above (which makes NO SENSE given the document below). But hang tight, because it gets stranger still.

Evidently, the equity line belonging to the County was used to purchase the Bickley property for $500,000, the Flier Building for $2.8 million, and the Hurst properties on Washington Blvd for $1.8 million. In one form or fashion, the County still owns all three buildings, although the SDAT records show Public Works to be the owner of 2 of them? If the Howard County Housing Commission did indeed cough up $505,000 to acquire the Bickley House, what would they want with a single 3BR, 2BA house that had badly flooded in 2014? One of the Commission’s prime purpose relates to affordable housing, as Howard County continues to struggle in this area, and the Moderate Income Housing initiative that involves new development and developers who either provide it or pay-in-lieu of providing it. $505,000 sounds neither affordable nor appropriate for a 3-bedroom.

Nevertheless, the County agreed to lend the Housing Commission $420,321 in 2016 in order to help modify what they called “6 group homes in Howard County”, of which it appears the Bickley House is ONE. That document appears below. Though the 6 homes were to be described in Exhibit A, Exhibit A only made reference to ONE house… the Bickley House:


A Regulatory Agreement was redone in 2018, but this time the language changed. The new language in 2018 says that the money was to acquire and rehabilitate only the Bickley House. And there are supposed to be limits as to who will live in it.

The Bickley House was converted from a 3 bedroom house into a single room occupancy place that had 4 units inside for low/middle income individuals. (See page 2)

And then, the Housing Commission used its credit line for $150,000 towards the house. That either brings the grand total to $655,000 spent for a 4 room low/moderate income building, or something else. ($505,000 purchase minus $420,321 finance amount of loan equals $84,679, not $150,000).

According to bond issuance documents for the Housing Commission, the Bickley House is being reported as having been purchased by that line of credit (Howard Bank one). The “current required payments” for Bickley reads $10,080, but that is for the $150,000 ONLY. What about the money and amount that the County is financing? Is it even remotely profitable with the actual numbers for the property? Are other houses bought by the Commission for half a million dollars for use by Howard low/moderate income individuals and households?



Apparently, the monies from the MIHU fee-in-lieu program that developers pay into can be used in order to acquire properties that are used for “single room occupancy” for special populations, and to provide rental assistance to them.

For this post, the Bickley House is only of interest. Which population is using that house? “Battered women and their children”.

Hope Works of Howard County, which runs a Safe House and transitional housing for battered women and their children:

Certainly, there was/is at least one person on Council who knew that the Bickley House was being used for this purpose…the wife of one of the architects of the Kittleman/Weinstein acquisition/demolition plan?! 👀

This begs an important question to be answered: Is Historic Ellicott SAFE or is it not? Battered women and children are now living where a pregnant woman had to be helicoptered out of? The property being discussed is shown here on a floodplain map. Keys were given to Hope Works and the property is involved in one of the HUD grant programs (and wouldn’t a property located in the flood zone merit double or triple checks for safety?).

Is this what Howard County is doing now with developer fee-in-lieu payments? Is this what will happen when the County pays to acquire the lower Main buildings? Will the purchases be at a loss? Why is the County paying more for properties than they are worth? Maybe ask Ken Ulman, prior County Exec who signed the agreements during Ball’s tenure on the Council, member of Ball’s transition team, and a continued financial supporter of his (and some new others who probably know how to reach him)?

Dr. Ball, will we also not know about your purchases until AFTER they’re done and nothing can be done about them? Are you using the word “counterproductive” now because there’s nothing to worry about?

Why is the County using funds from capital projects account C0337 to create sidewalks, do parking lot improvements, and purchase properties that are used for low/moderate income populations?? (See page 1 above of 2014 Bickley purchase that shows “C0337)

Current picture of the front and back of Bickley House:

Other sources of info used:

The story about the Bickleys after the Lee flood:

https://www.baltimoresun.com/ph-ho-cf-flooding-recovery-0915-20110913-story.html

2 Comments

  • Will G

    Someone going to tell Mr Robey that his office made this mistake? Also, why is the county’s loan not mentioned on the land record intake sheet? Do they not want people to know about it?

  • Turner

    Taking what was reported by the Baltimore Sun headline “Howard County executive says county will acquire, then assess Ellicott City properties”. Is he insane? You buy it and then evaluate what you bought later? Who does that? Oh that’s right, Howard County with all the money in the world to burn. Disgustingly privileged.

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