Crime and Justice

Slate Ridge attorney asserts town, court don’t have jurisdiction over shooting ranges

Daniel Banyai speaks to a group at Slate Ridge in Pawlet. Facebook photo

An attorney representing the owner of Slate Ridge has asked the Vermont Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s decision shutting down the unpermitted paramilitary training facility in West Pawlet.

Cindy Hill, a Middlebury-based attorney for Daniel Banyai, filed the brief on Friday, seeking to overturn a Vermont Superior Court ruling by Judge Thomas Durkin.

Durkin, with the environmental division of the court, had ruled that Banyai must cease all military-style training activities, tear down unpermitted structures on his property, and pay the town government more than $46,600 in fines. 

Hill asks the court to reverse that order, declare a voided 2018 permit for Banyai’s schoolhouse valid, and declare that Banyai’s activities at the shooting range — which have drawn national attention — “are not under subject matter jurisdiction of the town or Environmental Division.”

Durkin’s decision largely hinged on a permit for a “school,” which he deemed to be invalid. Banyai began holding firearms training on his property in 2017, and applied for the permit for a 500-square-foot building in 2018. At first, it was denied because he didn’t have the required 50-foot-wide right-of-way. 

Several months later, after the allotted timeline for an appeal had passed, Banyai attempted to appeal, submitting an application for a variance for his 30-foot-wide right-of-way. The town Development Review Board decided the right-of-way was a pre-existing nonconformity, clearing it, but neighbors appealed that decision. 

While the court was processing the neighbors’ appeal, the town zoning administrator issued a new permit for Banyai on June 4, 2018, based on the Development Review Board’s decision that his right-of-way had been cleared. Soon after, the judge processing the appeal decided that the zoning administrator did not have the authority to issue the permit because the appeal was still being processed. 

Because Banyai’s appeal was late, the court said the Development Review Board had to re-examine his request for a variance as a separate, independent application. Ultimately, the board denied the variance for the right-of-way. The board issued Banyai a notice of violation in July 2019 and, according to Durkin’s decision, that violation still stands. 

In her brief, Hill argued that the zoning administrator did, in fact, have the authority to approve the June 4 permit. A zoning administrator “is not precluded from acting when something is on appeal,” the brief says.

Hill argues that the town’s failure to act while the appeal was being processed in court voids the 2019 notice of violation. 

“Indeed, if a permit application comes in, the (zoning administrator) must act upon it, irrespective of whether an appeal is pending,” she wrote. 

Also, because the town had previously granted Banyai another permit on his residential structure with the given 30-foot right-of-way, she argues it could not deny the schoolhouse.

Hill also argued that the 2019 notice of violation is invalid because it’s aimed at a private, recreational land use, which she said “is not subject to municipal zoning, thus over which neither Town nor Environmental Division have subject matter jurisdiction.”

The Environmental Division “erred and abused its discretion in issuing judgment against landowner in reliance on improperly admitted, inherently unreliable evidence,” she asserted in her fourth point, and in the fifth, that the division “abused its discretion in imposing excessive sanctions.”

Durkin’s inclusion of Banyai’s behavior — such as his remark that Banyai “taunted and berated town officials” — was irrelevant, she wrote. 

Several protective orders have been issued against Banyai for threatening behavior, and his past actions have prompted neighbors to express fear and concern for their own safety. 

“To now demand that Banyai tear down structures that the Town previously permitted (See Argument I above) is unreasonable, vitriolic, and would constitute an egregious miscarriage of justice,” the brief reads. 

Earlier this year, Banyai applied for a permit for a building that appeared similar to the original schoolhouse he referenced in his 2018 application, which neighbors appealed

The Supreme Court will soon schedule a hearing, at which the justices will hear arguments from Hill and Merrill Bent, the attorney for the Pawlet town government.

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