Over the past year, many Vermont residents have become aware of Slate Ridge, a “gunfighting” training facility in West Pawlet where Daniel Banyai, the landowner, has threatened neighbors and hosted members of local militias.
But none of those issues came up during oral arguments before the Vermont Supreme Court on Wednesday in a case that could determine the future of the controversial facility. Instead, the 30-minute hearing, livestreamed on the court’s Youtube channel, revolved around matters more mundane: permits, appeals and Pawlet’s town bylaws.
Each side had 15 minutes to present its case. Middlebury-based attorney Cindy Hill, who represented Banyai, argued that a 2018 permit issued to Banyai for a “school” is still valid.
Manchester-based attorney Merrill Bent, representing the Pawlet town government, argued that the permit is not valid.
Five justices — Chief Justice Paul Reiber, Beth Robinson, Harold Eaton, Karen Carroll and John Dooley — heard the case after Banyai appealed a decision issued by Judge Thomas Durkin in March. Durkin, a judge with the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court, ordered Slate Ridge to close in a ruling that required Banyai to pay the town $46,603.
Durkin wrote that a notice of violation, which a zoning administrator served to Banyai in August 2019, is still valid, and that Banyai does not have the permit required to operate his facility.
Banyai bought his property in 2013, and started holding firearms training there in 2017. That year, he applied for a permit for a 500-square-foot building he had already built, and defined the proposed use as a “school,” according to Durkin’s decision. At first, the town government denied the permit because he didn’t have the required 50-foot-wide right-of-way.
Months went by, and Banyai’s time to appeal the permit denial passed — but he subsequently submitted an application for a variance, which he titled “zoning appeal.” The town’s Development Review Board called it a pre-existing nonconforming use, but neighbors appealed that decision. Meanwhile, the town zoning administrator issued a permit for Banyai on June 4, 2018, based on the Development Review Board’s decision.
The judge processing the appeal said the zoning administrator didn’t have the authority to issue the permit while the appeal was being processed. Also, the Development Review Board had to reexamine Banyai’s late variance request as an independent application. The board denied it, issuing Banyai a notice of violation. According to Durkin’s decision, that violation still stands.
While Bent maintains that Durkin’s ruling stands, Hill argued that the zoning administrator had authority to issue the permit, and that Banyai’s gun ranges are within the town’s permitted uses for the land.
During questioning by the justices, Dooley quoted a piece of Durkin’s ruling, which contends that even if the 2018 permit were valid, “Mr. Banyai has completed improvements and increased the uses of the property well beyond the authority of the 2018 permit.”
He asked Hill what other structures are on the property, and whether Banyai is “lawfully proceeding at this point, given that Judge Durkin is saying, ‘no, there are other structures, and they aren’t covered by any permit.’”
Hill said there’s no evidence in the record of other structures that aren’t permitted.
Banyai, who has hosted recorded tours of his property, has told media outlets that he’s made improvements totaling $1.6 million on the property.
Dooley asked Hill about one structure in the record, which Hill described as a “cover over the tables for shooting.”
“There is no evidence in the record that that meets the definition of a structure or a building or anything that’s not exempt under the town of Pawlet zoning bylaws,” she said.
Eaton asked about the scope of a permit for a “school.”
“What are we to make of that permit?” he asked. “What are the limits?”
Hill said it’s up to the discretion of the zoning administrator, who decided in 2018 to issue the permit. It’s a permitted use, not a conditional use, which means it doesn’t require additional review, she said.
“The town of Pawlet has rural, small-town-Vermont bylaws that allow a lot of uses, particularly in these large-lot, rural zones, and put most of the control of those in the zoning administrator’s hands,” she said.
Reiber asked Hill to define a shooting school.
“I’m not aware that there’s a formal definition of ‘shooting school,’” she said. “We did point out, in the town of Pawlet zoning bylaws, however, they explicitly say that shooting ranges and rod and gun clubs are outdoor recreational uses.”
Bent argued that the case isn’t complicated.
“The effort to bring Mr. Banyai’s property into compliance with Pawlet zoning bylaws has been ongoing for more than three and a half years,” she said. “That’s not because there’s any complexity in establishing his numerous violations of Pawlet zoning bylaws.”
Rather, Banyai has had opportunities to come into compliance, to present his case, and to show that “his project is consistent with Pawlet zoning bylaws and state law.”
Eaton asked Bent what the limits of the 2018 permit might be, should the court consider it valid. He referred to an application from Banyai that showed two rectangles drawn on his property.
“We have a permit that says ‘school,’” he said. “What does that mean?”
“I suppose, your honor, that the appellant can put a rectangular box on his property,” she said. “I think that there needs to be some additional parameters on the school.”
The issue could be developed “in the context of an appeal from that permit, were that case to resume once jurisdiction is returned to the town [Development Review Board] to do that,” she said.
“The town’s position is the environmental division correctly applied the law and should be affirmed,” Bent said in conclusion.
Because the full court heard the attorney’s arguments, it may take several months to reach a decision.
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