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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 25, 2007

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Baumstein ‘Branches’ out to start dream business

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — Jay Baumstein’s dream is now a reality.

Throughout his career as a special-education teacher and as a school administrator, Baumstein always wanted to use his hands, and he wanted to return to the Hilltowns, which he calls "an untapped resource of beauty that you can’t get anywhere else."

He now owns and operates Laurel Branch Land Development out of his Knox home, overlooking the rolling hills of Berne and Knox.

"I have a really deep respect for the environment," Baumstein said. "That’s very important to me."

He doesn’t simply plop houses down and cut down trees, he said, but tries to fit homes into the environment.

"I’m not out to destroy the environment. I’m trying to work with it. This is my little contribution. I build a nice home on a pretty piece of land. To me, it’s artwork," Baumstein said.

He and his family have lived in the Hilltowns since the early 1990s. Since, he’s built about a dozen homes.

"I like to do a custom plan to meet the needs of the customer," said Baumstein. "I’ve never built the same house twice."

Baumstein is currently working on a subdivision in Knox on the corner of Becker and Knox-Gallupville roads.

Baumstein said local planning boards "are right on." In Knox, there is a minimum lot size of three acres per dwelling in the agricultural district. He could have put more homes on the 65-acre agriculturally-zoned property on Seabury Road he purchased nearly eight years ago, he said, but built just eight homes with larger lots.

Baumstein sells quality, speed, and efficiency, he said.

"The reason I can do that is because I have a stable of sub-contractors that do my work, that work well for me. They’re timely, they’re expedient, and they’re quality-oriented," Baumstein said.

Baumstein said he can finish a 2,500-square-foot house in about 110 days; currently, he said, he is setting his own record by finishing a 2,600-square-foot Colonial ranch house in under 100 days.

"We don’t compromise our quality at all, but what we offer is an extremely efficient process," he said.

"I take somebody’s idea and make it reality," he said.

Using the sun

When designing homes, Baumstein said, he uses passive solar design, which maximizes the sun’s heat.

"If you angle a house appropriately to the sun, use the right amount of glass, the right amount of insulation, there’s no reason the sun shouldn’t heat your building during the day," he said.

Storing heat at night is different, but, Baumstein said, if a homeowner has a well-insulated house, he or she isn’t going to use much heat.

A homeowner can maximize the sun’s heat by insulating his home extremely well, he said, and by placing the right amount of windows on the south side of the home, with minimal windows facing the north and west, which bring colder winds.

Because the tax benefits aren’t as good as they were in the 1980s, developers aren’t installing as many active solar systems.

In the early 1980s, when the tax benefits were still good, Baumstein said, designers built more homes with active solar systems — solar panels, solar collectors, Trombe walls, and water walls.

"But, as soon as the tax incentives dried up, people didn’t really want to do that any longer," he said. To install active systems, Baumstein said, homeowners have to make large investments.

Current market conditions baffle him. Developers in the area have overbuilt, and some have had to drastically reduce their prices to move homes, he said.

"It’s not a good time in our industry, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it," Baumstein said.

Money is available and current mortgage rates, at 5-and-a-half and six percent, are "unheard of."

"People aren’t moving. People aren’t buying," he said.


A civil engineer in the late 1960s, Baumstein was unable to find a job because there wasn’t any federal funding, he said. He was then offered a teaching position in special education, which he knew nothing about.

He fell into the career, he said, and pursued it, earning his special-education degree from Buffalo State College. He taught in Middleburgh after college, and later became an administrator. In 1979, Baumstein moved to Franklin County, and worked as a director of a school program in the Adirondacks.

"But I really always wanted to use my hands," Baumstein said.

The Baumsteins moved down the coast to rural Virginia.

In the mid-1980s, he began working with cabinets. Just a few years later, he saw that more money could be made in designing new homes.

As their children grew older, the Baumsteins decided to move to the Hilltowns. He said he didn’t want his children to be raised in an environment like rural Virginia, where racism was overt.

"I missed these hills," Baumstein said, recalling his Middleburgh days. "That’s why we came back."

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