Reporter Debrief: Daniel Banyai Versus Town Of Pawlet Case To Be Heard By State Supreme Court
Vermont’s Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a long-simmering case between Daniel Banyai and the town of Pawlet.
Banyai is the owner of Slate Ridge, a tactical weapons training facility he began operating in West Pawlet in 2017. Neighbors have complained about the loud gunfire they’ve heard coming from the site. And several have told VPR that when they complained to local officials about it, they received threats from Daniel Banyai.
Town officials say Banyai opened his training facility without a permit and that he has ignored notices of violation.
In March, an environmental court judge agreed and ruled that Banyai had to permanently close Slate Ridge, dismantle all of his unpermitted buildings and pay the town more than $46,000 in fines.
Now Banyai, with his attorney, is appealing that decision.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Nina Keck, who has been following the case. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: Daniel Banyai and the town of Pawlet have been at loggerheads for more than three years. So remind listeners how we got to this point.
Nina Keck: A lot of what will be brought up in court tomorrow will hinge upon several different permits and a driveway.
Yes, but fair warning, this case is about zoning bylaws and permits, and it gets a little wonky and complicated — so I’ll do my best to streamline.
It might help to think of Banyai’s 30-acre property like a lollipop. The only access is via a driveway owned by his neighbors.
In late 2017, Banyai applied for a permit to build a school. But according to town bylaws, his driveway was too narrow.
So he didn’t get a permit, and he missed the deadline to appeal.
A few months later in April of 2018, Banyai reached out to Pawlet’s development review board to get around the denial by arguing that his property lines had been drawn up before new town rules were in place regarding the need for wider driveways. The development review board agreed.
But neighbors appealed that decision to the state environmental court.
OK, so at this point the case is being heard by the state’s environmental court ...
Yes, and while the environmental court was hearing this appeal, Daniel Banyai submitted another permit application for a school, this time pointing to the development review board’s decision that his property was [exempted].
The zoning administrator granted Banyai a permit in June 2018.
And this is where things get really complicated. Both sides are now arguing over which permit is the valid one, and who has jurisdiction to grant a permit when the state courts are weighing in.
And that’s what the Supreme Court is being asked to figure out.
What are the main arguments that the town of Pawlet’s attorney Merrill Bent will make before the court?
She believes the lower environmental court got it right.
She argues that Daniel Banyai has never applied for or obtained a valid permit for the multiple structures and shooting ranges he has built on the property.
She says Banyai has publicly said he’s invested more than $1.6 million worth of infrastructure and improvements on his property. Yet he hasn’t notified town officials about any of that.
But I think her main point is that when Daniel Banyai missed the deadline to appeal that January 2018 permit decision — it became final … And she says it makes the later June permit decision "void ab initio." In other words, wrong from the beginning.
She also argues that there’s a lot of legal precedent in Vermont that shows Pawlet’s zoning administrator lost his authority to grant that June 2018 permit when the environmental court took up the issue.
I’m guessing Cindy Hill, Daniel Banyai’s attorney, disagrees with much of that. What is she basing her arguments on?
Hill’s main argument is that the June 2018 permit is valid.
She argues that the zoning administrator absolutely had the authority to approve it. That it’s his job even when something is on appeal.
And she says the zoning administrator invited Daniel Banyai to apply for that new permit as a way to address the issues that got in the way of his first application.
She also points out that a few months later in 2018, the town granted Banyai a permit to build a residential structure. Hill argues the town can’t have it both ways, approving one permit with a 30-foot wide driveway while not approving his permit for a school house.
And she thinks the court went overboard by imposing excessive sanctions and fines.
You’ve been reporting on Slate Ridge, and a big part of your reporting has had to do with the fear that many of Daniel Banyai’s neighbors say they’ve felt because of his activities and alleged threats he’s made to people in town. Are those issues part of this Supreme Court case?
No they’re not. Nor is Daniel Banyai’s past behavior in court — he was held in contempt during one of the hearings because he wouldn’t answer questions.
But I think his behavior, the intimidation, his affiliation with members of militias who are known to train at his facility, and all of the media attention Slate Ridge has gotten, is what makes this case so compelling despite the fact that it's mostly about municipal bylaws and zoning permits.
Jared Carter, who teaches at Vermont Law School, described the case to me this way:
"Broadly framed, this case is yes, about jurisdiction, and timeliness of appeals. But it’s also about what’s going on in our society right now. You know, with respect to the Second Amendment, militias, Jan. 6, and I’m not saying that there’s a direct connection between what Mr. Banyai was doing and those things, but clearly right now in this country, concerns around those issues is heightened. I think that’s why we’re paying attention here, right now.”