Published January 14. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 14. 2013 9:25AM
Westerly - The Pawcatuck River babbles serenely on this winter morning, flowing south toward the sea after having captured runoff from many miles of meandering through some of the most rural parts of the state.
But during the great floods of 2010, the Pawcatuck was anything but serene. Swollen with rainwater, it raged toward the downtown, easily leaping over its banks.
Last week, town planner Marilyn Shellman walked along sections of the river and pointed to houses and businesses where the floodwaters had risen several feet deep.
"They're sitting ducks," she said.
While the 2010 floods were devastating, they certainly weren't the first to damage the riverfront properties, nor will they be the last, she said.
That's why Shellman was pleased to learn that the town will receive $1.1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy up to eight flood-prone properties.
All the Westerly properties are on Canal Street, which runs along the river, turning from quiet and residential to busier and industrial closer to town.
Three of the properties are adjacent just outside the town center, on the north side. One is the Miceli's Furniture warehouse, a wool scouring factory long ago, and once the store's headquarters. (Miceli's has a showroom nearby in the downtown.) The other two are a seasonal business called Trash and Treasures that sells secondhand items and a dilapidated and long-vacant three-family house.
None are wonders of architecture, and Shellman eagerly walked to the rear of the properties to describe the town's vision of transforming them into a leafy riverfront park for a neighborhood in desperate need of green space.
Arriving at the edge of the Pawcatuck, where tree limbs hang out over the river, she said, "Wouldn't this make a wonderful park for the kids? I mean, what a view! We are looking at a substantial amount of park area and quite a bit of riverfront."
"See that wall," she said. "We'd like to put some steps here so you could throw a fly rod in here and do some fishing."
Benches would make for a terrific picnic spot as well, she said. She hopes to work with local groups, such as the Westerly Land Trust and the Westerly Municipal Land Trust to beautify the park.
The vision is quite a contrast to the abundance of debris that littered the properties following the floods.
Under the plan, the buildings would be demolished.
Also to be demolished would be five other properties, a row of houses less than half a mile up Canal Street. While they don't sit on the river side of the street, the Pawcatuck comes within just a few feet of Canal Street here and the properties are low-lying.
Shellman pointed at a spot about waist-high on a nearby utility pole and said, "The water was up to here. It was close to a week before it subsided."
The dwellings are plain one- and two-story buildings, hard up against Canal Street. All are occupied.
Nothing would be developed in their place. Instead, the land would be left in a natural state.
Across from the northernmost house is the site of a former sheet metal shop built by Tarzan Brown, the Narragansett Indian and Boston Marathon winner. Thanks to the state Department of Environmental Management, it's being turned into a recreational center. The 4-acre site has 1,700 feet of riverfront and will have a launch for kayaks and small boats.
"We're aggressively pursuing property along the river and putting it into trust," she said.
When all of the plans come together, there will be a continuous section of public access to the river from downtown north to the Gingerella Sports Complex. It's good for recreation and prudent considering the destruction that the river can cause during storms.
"How long do you keep doing this, paying to fix things?" Shellman said. "It lasts four to five years and then you have to fix it again."
Following the 2010 flooding, the town went to the eight property owners asking if they would sign "a letter of interest," indicating they would be willing to sell.
"They all signed," she said.
The town used those letters to support an application for the federal grant. Last week, members of the state's congressional delegation announced that the request had been approved. The town will contribute 25 percent of the cost of purchasing the properties and demolishing them.
Now the town will have to go back to the property owners and negotiate sales agreements with them. Shellman is confident they'll still be interested, but they signed the letters several years ago, while they were still recovering from the floods.
"Who knows what their state of mind is or if they have changed their mind?" she said.
The town will send notices to the property owners soon.
"It's my hope we can move on this quickly," she said, hoping that properties will be purchased in time for them to be demolished in the summer.