On August 16, 2023

Benyai’s lawsuit against Pawlet town is thrown out


Un-permitted structures for paramilitary school must be removed and fines paid or face prison 

Staff report

A judge has thrown out a federal lawsuit against the town of Pawlet brought by resident Daniel Banyai as he attempts to build a paramilitary school.

The lawsuit was dismissed Monday, Aug. 7 by U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III.

Banyai filed the lawsuit in May through his attorney Robert Kaplan, claiming the town, Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin and between one and 20 people “whose identities are unknown at present,” discriminated against him. He said they violated his due process rights “by arbitrarily depriving him of his property interests.” Banyai also claimed his Second Amendment rights were violated when the town prohibited him from operating a shooting range.  

Banyai alleges the town and Judge Durkin “intentionally treated (him) differently from other similarly situated individuals due to the nature of his intended operations – namely, firearms related training and education,” according to the judgment.

The legal dispute between Banayi and the town has been ongoing since 2017, when Banyai started building a school called Slate Ridge on his 30-acre property. Since then, town officials have granted permits and then reversed course and both parties have brought cases to court.

Banyai first applied for a permit for the building in 2017 and was initially denied by the Pawlet Development Review Board due to noncompliance with a right of way requirement.

Banyai didn’t appeal the town’s decision on the right of way. He instead applied to the Pawlet Development Review Board for a variance.

The DRB later reversed its action and determined Benyai did not need a permit because his property was a pre-existing nonconforming lot. The DRB told Banyai to submit a new permit.

Neighbors appealed the DRB’s decision and, while the appeal was pending, the zoning administrator granted Benyai a permit to build the structure. 

The Environmental Court stepped in and Judge Durkin determined Banyai’s zoning permit was invalid due to the pending appeal from neighbors. 

The DRB subsequently denied Banyai’s variance application, based on the judge’s recommendation. Banyai started construction, despite his lack of appropriate permits.  The town’s zoning administrator issued a notice to Banyai on Aug. 29, 2019, requiring him to remove all unpermitted  structures on the property. 

“Mr. Banyai did not comply nor did he appeal,” the August judgment says. 

Banyai’s noncompliance brought him back to court. Judge Durkin required Banyai to have his property surveyed and then immediately deconstruct and remove all unpermitted structures.

Banyai still did not comply. And, the town went to court again. This time, Judge Durkin ordered Banyai to pay fines and comply or go to prison. Banyai then moved the Environmental Court to reconsider the contempt order, which Judge Durkin denied on March 3. Banyai did not appeal.

“Instead of complying with the Environmental Court’s several orders, Plaintiff has turned to the federal court for relief,” Sessions wrote in his recent order.

Sessions ruled Banyai’s rights were not violated because he had opportunities to appeal his case and opted not to do so.  

“Plaintiff could and should have litigated his present claims in Environmental Court … or during the town’s enforcement action against him.  …  Plaintiff’s constitutional claims ‘could have been fully litigated in the prior proceeding,’” Sessions said.

Sessions also ruled “Judge Durkin is immune from this suit” due to his status as a judge.

Sessions further denied a motion filed by Banyai’s attorney, Robert Kaplan, to amend the original complaint.

Attempts to reach Kaplan weren’t successful. 

The ongoing case has caused a change in Vermont law. Gov. Phil Scott signed a law in May, prohibiting paramilitary training in Vermont. 

The law prohibits anyone from teaching others how to make firearms or explosives capable of causing injury or death. A person who violates the law could be imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to $50,000.

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