Newport officials have been negotiating with homeowners to buy 6½ acres of flood-prone land along the Mississippi River to make way for a new city park.

The city has so far acquired and demolished four of eight homes in the flood plain along the river, land that, given the ever-looming threat of flooding, would be better suited for recreational use, City Administrator Deb Hill said.

The proposed open-space park, bounded roughly by Cedar Lane on the east, 17th Street on the north and 14th Street on the south, would include bike trails and picnic areas, Hill said.

She added that the city is also looking at purchasing a small, unnamed island just offshore of the flood plain possibly to use as a launch site for kayaks and canoes.

The idea for the park was born after the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that it would be too costly to replace the 50-year-old earthen levee protecting the area with a new, concrete version, city officials said.

"The whole intent of trying to do something with the levee is trying to protect the homes," Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty said. "But it's probably more cost-effective to take the homes out of there and build a park."

City officials said they would not seek to force the four remaining homeowners to sell their land. However, if they chose to stay in the flood plain, their homes would be vulnerable to flooding.

"They all know they're living a little precariously," Hill said. The levee, she added, "will go at some point, whether or not it's this month or this decade."

The land earmarked for the park is about a mile south from where a $6.2 million transit station is planned to go. City officials hope it will breathe new life into surrounding blighted commercial areas.

The park would provide residents with more opportunities for recreation along the river, which has few access points in town, said Sherri Buss, an urban planner with TKDA, a St. Paul-based engineering firm that works with the city.

"One of the best things about this redevelopment area, one of its best assets, is how close it is to the Mississippi River," Buss said. "But right now, there is not a way for the folks that are going to live in that area to have direct access to the river." □