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

The owner of a controversial paramilitary training facility has sued the town of Pawlet, the Environmental Court judge who ruled against him, and 20 other so far unnamed defendants.

Daniel Banyai’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, comes days after a court-issued deadline that required Banyai to move several buildings from his property, known as Slate Ridge. It calls for a temporary restraining order against town officials and the judge, and asks that they be “preliminarily and permanently” prohibited from enforcing the court orders. 

Town officials are scheduled to visit Banyai’s property on Thursday to see whether he has complied with the May 25 deadline, according to Merrill Bent, attorney for the town of Pawlet.

Neighbors have alleged for years that Banyai has threatened and harassed them. While state officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, have maintained that Banyai has not violated state or federal laws, the town of Pawlet brought his local zoning violations to court in an effort to close the facility. 

Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin ordered Banyai to shut down the facility and deconstruct all related buildings and improvements in March 2021. After Banyai appealed, the Supreme Court agreed with Durkin’s order in January 2022. Since then, Durkin has ruled that Banyai is in contempt of court. 

Banyai’s lawsuit accuses town officials and Durkin of attempting “to infringe on protected constitutional and state law activity by way of local zoning regulations.”

In the complaint, Robert Kaplan, Banyai’s attorney with the Burlington-based firm Kaplan and Kaplan, wrote that the unnamed defendants “are either unknown at present” or Banyai “does not yet have sufficient information to properly plead a cause of action against them.”

They are “employees, agents, or associates” of Durkin or the town “that witnessed, concealed, facilitated, or otherwise participated in the acts to which Plaintiff was subjected,” Kaplan wrote. 

The complaint outlines a familiar argument, arguing that one of the zoning permits granted to Banyai, which was later voided, should be considered valid. 

Kaplan wrote that pressure from the media, including VTDigger, and politicians, including Gov. Phil Scott and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, changed Banyai’s outcome. 

“Far from questioning the significant overreach, abuse of power and egregious interference of private property rights, local residents, the media, and high-ranking government officials, including Governor Phil Scott, encouraged and cheered the violation of Plaintiffs civil rights every step of the way,” Kaplan wrote. 

Kaplan alleges that town officials in Pawlet did not treat Banyai equally to other residents of the town. The town and the judge acted with “deliberate indifference, malice, and bad faith against Plaintiff in violation of his constitutional rights” when they required him to remove agricultural structures from his property and did not let him repurpose a building he used for paramilitary training, Kaplan wrote. 

“Other similarly situated individuals were not and had not been subjected to the same aggressive and tedious level of scrutiny,” he wrote. 

Pawlet officials, Durkin and the unnamed defendants “deprived (Banyai) of the aforementioned property interests in a way that is so outrageously arbitrary, conscience shocking, and oppressive in a constitutional sense as to be a gross abuse of government authority,” the complaint states. 

Kaplan also argues that public and private shooting ranges are protected under the Second Amendment.

Bent, an attorney for the town of Pawlet, called the lawsuit “an effort to delay what I think is the inevitable.” The request for a restraining order, she said, seems to have been “an attempt to get the site visit canceled.”

Kaplan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

As of Wednesday, the District Court had not issued a decision that would prevent town officials from visiting and assessing Banyai’s property. 

The only court-issued document in the docket was the recusal of District Judge Christine Reiss. According to the document, Reiss’s father was “shot and killed through the use of a shooting range and berm on private property.”

“To avoid the appearance of impropriety and a lack of impartiality, another judge should hear this case,” she wrote. The court reassigned the case to Judge William Sessions.

VTDigger's environment reporter.