Daniel Banyai, owner of the Slate Ridge paramilitary training facility in West Pawlet, appears for his contempt hearing in Environmental Court in Rutland on Friday, November 4, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Environmental Judge Thomas Durkin has ruled that Daniel Banyai, owner of the controversial paramilitary training facility Slate Ridge, has violated court orders and will go to prison if he does not deconstruct unpermitted buildings on his property within a schedule set by the court. 

Banyai “has demonstrated a willfulness, perhaps even an enthusiasm, for disregarding the Town’s Bylaws, this Court’s Orders, and the authority of the Judiciary,” Durkin wrote in his decision.

The ruling marks the latest in a case that began in 2019. Slate Ridge, which Banyai once called a center for “professional gunfighting,” has hosted training for militias in Vermont and has sparked conversations about the state’s lack of infrastructure to handle such facilities.  

Neighbors of the facility, located in West Pawlet, have complained and expressed fear about the activities of its owner, and, while government officials have said Banyai has not violated state or federal laws, the town of Pawlet has fought to close the facility by bringing his violation of local zoning ordinances to the state’s Environmental Court. 

In March 2021, Durkin ordered Banyai to pay the town more than $45,000 in fines — a decision that the Vermont Supreme Court later affirmed. 

In some ways, Durkin’s new order is an extension of an old order, which required Banyai to dismantle buildings associated with his unpermitted shooting facility. But this time, the stakes are higher. 

By March 25, Banyai must “complete the deconstruction and removal” of an unpermitted school building, a facade used for paramilitary training exercises, shipping containers and “all stair/ladder/platforms.” Within 90 days, by May 9, Banyai must also deconstruct berms that make up the property’s shooting ranges. Within 135 days, he must remove all other unpermitted structures. 

Until Banyai completes the work in the schedule set by the court, he will continue to accrue fines of $200 per day, which began Jan. 14, 2022, when the state Supreme Court affirmed Durkin’s first decision, issuing a final order for Banyai to deconstruct buildings on his land. By Feb. 8, that fine had reached a total of $78,000, Durkin wrote.

If, upon inspection by town officials, Banyai has successfully completed the work, the fines will be erased. 

However, if Banyai remains in contempt of court — or if he refuses to allow town officials to inspect his land — he will be sent to prison, and the fines will continue to accumulate.

During a recent hearing, Banyai, represented by Burlington-based attorney Robert Kaplan,  argued that some of his buildings were agricultural in nature and therefore the court order did not apply to them, and that he had placed one of the at-issue buildings on a trailer and intended to remove it shortly. 

Durkin dismissed these arguments as “untimely, impermissible, and ingenuine.”

“No buildings or other structures have been deconstructed or removed from the Property, including the school building. Instead, Respondent’s only efforts have been to circumvent the Court’s orders and delay enforcement,” the decision stated. 

Durkin wrote that he tried to strike a balance in his decision. The case “has required significant effort from the Town,” he wrote.

“The Court, however, also appreciates the magnitude of work Respondent must complete to bring his Property into compliance with the Town’s Bylaws, which may be complicated by the current winter season,” Durkin wrote. “Thus, the Court seeks to strike a balance in creating a compliance schedule that is both tough, but fair, and capable of furthering timely compliance, such that Respondent may successfully purge the contempt fines.”

Neither Kaplan nor Merrill Bent, attorney for the town of Pawlet, were immediately available for comment Wednesday afternoon. 

VTDigger's environment reporter.