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Plum Island woman won’t rebuild house lost to the sea

John Blanding/Globe Staff

Geraldine Buzzotta had hoped to construct a new house on Northern Boulevard in Newbury, but her family said she has lost the desire to rebuild.

A widow and grandmother who very painfully - and very publicly - lost her seaside Plum Island home to the ocean more than three years ago has chosen to sell her property rather than rebuild.

After a long and protracted fight, Geraldine Buzzotta, 82, recently won state approval to construct a new house at 16R Northern Blvd. in Newbury. The family had been expected to break ground this spring, but the .12-acre lot is now up for sale for $349,900.

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The real estate listing, in addition to photos of the beach view, includes a schematic of the environmentally sensitive building plan that was approved by local boards and the state Department of Environmental Protection. Newbury building inspector Sam Joslin said the next step for Buzzotta would have been to seek a building permit.

After a battle to rebuild that lasted for more than three years - and that included multiple permit applications, approvals and denials, appeals, studies and reports, and, ultimately in December, approval from the state environmental agency’s commissioner, Kenneth Kimmell - Buzzotta’s family said she simply was exhausted and chose to move on.

“This has been a six-year ordeal for my mother, who was in her late 70s when the erosion first began, and while the outcome was ultimately a positive one, the toll it has taken in terms of her energy and enthusiasm was not so favorable, resulting in her losing the desire to rebuild,’’ her son, Paul Buzzotta, said in a brief written statement. He declined to comment further.

Geraldine Buzzotta, who has been living in a senior housing complex while awaiting approval to rebuild, did not wish to be interviewed for this story, nor did other family members. Their lawyer, Robert L. Brennan Jr. of Brennan, Dain, Le Ray, Wiest, Torpy & Garner PC, in Boston, also did not return calls seeking comment.

According to the real estate listing, the land was assessed at $542,700 in 2011, and all permits, besides a building permit, are in place. Town officials say that means the long-fought approvals from the town Zoning Board of Appeals, the Conservation Commission, and the Department of Environmental Protection’s final order of conditions, a document that governs work on the site, will go with the land. Prospective buyers who want to deviate from the approved plans might have to restart the process.

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Joslin said it will all come down to engineering. “If they can engineer it, most likely they’ll be able to build it,’’ he said, also noting that a prospective buyer would probably want to get a building permit prior to purchase.

A building permit requires sign-offs from the Board of Health, Conservation Commission, treasurer/collector, Planning Board, Fire Department, Highway Department, and zoning board of appeals in Newbury, according to the town website, and the water and sewer departments in Newburyport. Prospective builders are also required to provide plot, foundation, framing and floor plans, exterior elevations, energy conservation information, and, particularly for Plum Island, certain information regarding flooding.

In a saga that started over Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, Buzzotta’s house was deemed unsafe after the ocean rapidly consumed the sand beneath it: Its front portion was left dangling over open air. Within hours, the home that she had lived in for more than 35 years with her late husband, Mario, was torn down. Almost immediately, she started the process of rebuilding.

And while some might question that decision, it’s not at all uncommon: Thousands who live in coastal regions of the United States have reconstructed on the same plots where their homes were flooded, ripped apart by winds, or taken away by the tide.

On Plum Island, a house at 27 Annapolis Way in Newbury (just a few hundred yards from Buzzotta’s property) owned by builder Gary Litchfield was razed in January 2011 and has since been rebuilt as a single-family home. Under Newbury’s zoning bylaws, residents of the barrier island can “rebuild as of right’’ a nonconforming single- or two-family residential structure that is either demolished or destroyed as the result of catastrophe, provided that it is not larger or taller than the torn-down home. The structure must be rebuilt within two years of the demolition or catastrophe, although that timeline can be extended with written request from the building inspector.

In Buzzotta’s case, the two-year time limit was extended because she was legally tied up in the process, according to Joslin.

But that time allowed for several projects that ultimately improved - if only temporarily - the integrity of the beach, which has been plagued by erosion problems for years. Giant sandbags several feet high were stacked in front of houses along the beach, and a long-anticipated, $5.5 million Army Corps of Engineers dredging project pumped a water-sand slurry onto the beaches at both Salisbury and Plum Island in late 2010.

Further - and what some say, more permanent - help will come later this year, when the Army Corps starts another long-awaited endeavor: a $3.5 million repair of the south jetty along Plum Island, funded through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act.

Ultimately, though, Joslin and others are not confident that the ongoing issues on the erosion-afflicted barrier island will ever truly be solved.

“Is there a permanent fix? I wish there was,’’ he said. “But I have the feeling that Mother Nature is going to do what she’s going to do.’’

Although Joslin noted that he has “some concerns’’ when it comes to rebuilding on the beach, dependent on location, it ultimately comes down to “common sense.’’

“You want to make sure you have a structure that, regardless of the land or what’s happening with the ocean, it stays,’’ he said.

According to an environmental notification form provided to the state by Buzzotta’s team of lawyers, engineers, and consultants, the plan was to replace the former three-bedroom, 1,680-square-foot house with a 1,572-square-foot structure set more inland.

The new house would have been elevated above the dune on pilings set behind the giant sandbags. Cantilevered decking would be made from a material that allows 40 to 60 percent of light to pass through so vegetation can grow beneath.

Meanwhile, bare areas would be planted with native vegetation, according to the proposal, and any disturbance to native vegetation or dunes during the construction process would be repaired or replanted.

“We really made a lot of efforts to minimize the footprints of the building,’’ explained Tom Hughes of Newburyport-based Hughes Environmental Consulting, who performed the permitting and environmental work for Buzzotta and her family over the long process. “It’s as sensitive a design as we could possibly have in that location.’’

And just as importantly, the plan would provide more protection for the house; if erosion took sand out from beneath it, Hughes said, the structure would continue to stand.

“It won’t have an effect one way or the other on how fast the dune erodes or what happens during a storm,’’ said Hughes. “The sand dunes will move around or erode as they would without the house.’’

Ultimately, the state environmental approval was a victory in what had been a protracted process: The town’s zoning board gave approval to Buzzotta in the summer of 2009, and the Conservation Commission in fall 2009. But neighbors and state environmental officials appealed the decision under the Wetlands Protection Act.

They argued the site was in a “highly vulnerable’’ storm erosion area, and that building could potentially result in additional degradation and deterioration of the dune, according to the appeal document. There were also concerns about building size, and stabilization of vegetation, both of which have since been addressed.

Responding to those initial concerns, the family withdrew its application, then refiled a new design with the Conservation Commission in September 2010 as the dredging project got underway.

The application was approved locally, and again appealed by the state and a smaller group of neighbors.

The state environmental agency denied the application last August. The family appealed, and ultimately won that appeal in December.

Throughout the process, as Hughes explained, the state requested various analyses, surveys, engineering, and project details, as well as a structural piling plan, performed by both him and Salisbury-based Millennium Engineering.

“The amount of time it took was unfortunate,’’ said Hughes. “But I do believe that in the end we got the right decision. It was a relief after nearly three years of an awful lot of work, and a lot of patience from the family.’’

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