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Plan for wall repair ready to take shape in historic Ellicott City

Before it became "The Wall That Ate Some Cars," it was just a stone wall on Mulligans Hill Lane, bracing a 20-foot-high embankment — stalwart as the steep hills that give Ellicott City's historic district much of its character.

Then in early September 2011 came the rains of Tropical Storm Lee, and in the dead of night a section of the wall that had stood since before the Civil War collapsed. Six cars parked along the wall were crushed or damaged. Parking spaces vanished under tons of stone quickly trucked in to shore up the embankment. People wondered when the mess would be put to rights.

That was 19 months ago, and there is still no new wall.

"It's frustrating," said Jay Steimetz, a special projects engineer with the Howard County Department of Public Works. "All this time everybody asks, 'What's happening?' "

At last, he has an answer. His agency has drafted a repair plan after lengthy discussions with the key property owner, St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which owns the seven acres and six buildings sitting on the embankment braced by the wall.

On Thursday, Steimetz and other department officials will put their proposal before the county Historic District Commission, which must rule on construction and renovation plans for the county's two historic districts, Ellicott City and Lawyers Hill.

The plan is to rebuild a wall about half the 20-foot height of the historic wall. It won't be exactly where the old one stood, but about 10 feet out into Mulligans Hill Lane. Workers would fill behind it with stone to brace the embankment and cover the fill with a small landscaped area sloping from the edge of the embankment to the top of the new wall.

The chief disadvantage of this approach is that parking spaces on Mulligans Hill Lane, about 10 or so, will be lost, Steimetz said.

Steimetz and a representative of the church said it's the best solution to emerge from months of discussion — all conducted in a cooperative spirit, according to accounts from both sides.

John Papania, the church business manager, expressed some concern that the church was getting a bad name in the neighborhood for standing in the way of progress. He said the church and the archdiocese were merely trying to make the best decision for the parish of some 1,300 families now and in years to come.

"We can't make a decision that could [adversely] affect people 100 years from now," Papania said.

Hence, the church opposed one proposal to rebuild the wall where it stood and brace it with horizontal steel rods installed underground. That would become a problem if the church ever decided to build anything on that land that needed a foundation, he said.

Also rejected was another plan that involved bracing the church building nearest the wall, Dohony Hall, with moorings put in place after tearing out the kitchen. The archdiocese was concerned the county would require rebuilding the kitchen up to current code.

As discussions went on between church and public works officials, folks in town were wondering what was going on.

"From time to time, someone asks questions about it," said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who represents the area. "It was complicated because there was a private landowner involved."

Steve Lafferty, a member of the Department of Planning and Zoning who also serves as County Executive Ken Ulman's liaison to historic Ellicott City, has done some explaining to neighbors over the past 19 months.

From the beginning, Lafferty said, he's been answering questions at meetings and through email about "when the wall is going to be repaired, when the parking spaces will be reclaimed," reassuring people that the problem was not being neglected.

He said he's probably been in touch with about 150 people via email on the progress of the repair.

The Historic District Commission staff supports the built-out wall plan, with a few conditions.

Notes included with the commission's April agenda show staff recommends landscaping the slope with native plants, presenting a drainage plan and, perhaps most significant, making sure the new wall surface is real granite — to conform with the historical character of the remaining wall and surrounding buildings.

The wall was probably built in the 1830s, said Ed Lilley, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, as were many of the buildings in that area. Dohony Hall — a three-story granite structure that serves as a church meeting hall — went up around that time, originally as a location of the Patapsco National Bank, Lilley said.

The wall that held for roughly 170 years was evidently brought down by the pressure of water building up behind it, said Steimetz, although the exact cause of the collapse has never been determined. There was no indication the collapse had anything to do with the earthquake centered in Virginia that hit the East Coast about two weeks before Tropical Storm Lee brought heavy rain and floods.

"All that could be determined was water pressure behind the wall" caused the collapse, said Steimetz.

He said once the plan is approved by Historic District Commission, it will have to be brought again to the Board of Public Works, this time sitting as the Scenic Roads Commission. With that hurdle leaped, the project can then be designed.

If all goes well, Steimetz said the project could be completed by the fall, but he acknowledged that estimate could be too optimistic. The work is expected to cost $350,000 to $400,000, but up to 70 percent of that sum could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The result, Papania said, will be worth the wait.

"It's going to be a very attractive wall," he said. "We're very confident and comfortable with it now."

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