Staff report, VTDigger
PAWLET—A Supreme Court decision has confirmed that Slate Ridge must permanently shut down and pay the town of Pawlet $46,603.
Neighbors have long expressed concerns and fear about the operations at the controversial paramilitary training facility, owned by Daniel Banyai, which has hosted local militia groups. Slate Ridge has garnered national attention; both The New York Times and This American Life have profiled the yearslong conflict between Banyai and neighbors.
Judge Thomas Durkin, a judge with the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court, ordered Slate Ridge to close in a March 2021 ruling that required Banyai to dismantle all of the buildings on his property that do not have a zoning permit and pay the fine. Banyai appealed last summer.
The Supreme Court affirmed that order in a decision issued Friday, Jan. 14. The ruling appears to lay a court case, which has been ongoing since 2018, to rest — though it sets off enforcement actions that likely will take time.
During the appeal, Banyai’s attorney, Cindy Hill, argued that a voided 2018 permit was still valid and asked the higher court to determine that Banyai’s paramilitary training activities on the property “are not under subject matter jurisdiction of the town or Environmental Division.”
A notice of violation issued to Banyai in 2019 is still valid, the Supreme Court ruled.
“Landowner argues that the trial court abused its discretion in part based on his assertion that no violation occurred and NOV2 (the second notice of violation) is void,” the Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Harold Eaton, said. “As explained above, NOV2 is valid, and landowner is foreclosed from challenging any of the violations therein.”
In its March 4, 2021, decision, the Environmental Court also made permanent a temporary injunction from January 2021, which said Banyai “shall not conduct or permit to be conducted any school and/or firearms training activities on the property situated at 541 Briar Hill Road, nor host classes of any type on the property.”
Merrill Bent, attorney for the town, said town officials were pleased to hear that the Supreme Court affirmed the decision, and will now begin the process of enforcement. Banyai’s fine resulted from his 466 days of noncompliance at $100 per day. To date, as far as the town knows, Bent said, Banyai hasn’t made efforts to comply, and Banyai did not ask for a stay while the matter was under appeal.
“Fines continue to accrue on a daily basis,” Bent said.
The town still needs to ask the court to rule on a contempt order issued last January when Banyai didn’t comply with a 30-day deadline to hire a surveyor and begin the process of dismantling buildings on his property, which the Environmental Court order required him to do.
“We also have to update that to reflect the last year or so of fines,” Bent said. “The court hasn’t said what the daily rate will be for fines to accrue, but the last round was $100 a day.”
It’s unlikely the daily fine would exceed $100 per day because the matter was under appeal, Bent said.
Next, Banyai will need to hire a surveyor to assess the improvements on his property, including structures and gun ranges, Bent said. Banyai told The Granville Sentinel that he’s spent $1.6 million on infrastructure — the story was used as an exhibit in the case.
Then, the town will need to get an order identifying what needs to be removed and how long it will take, Bent said.
“And then we also have to see what exactly Mr. Banyai is going to do about it, in terms of whether he’s going to willingly do so himself or if the town is going to have to ask for permission to go on the property to perform the work,” Bent said.
If he doesn’t comply, Bent said the town will need to ask the court to hold him in contempt.
“Theoretically, civil contempt can include both fines or even jail time,” Bent said. “But I really don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here because, hopefully, we never get there. Hopefully we get compliance with the order and move forward, and then, if there are future projects on that property, then we can start with a clean slate.”
In the last several months, Banyai has posted on Slate Ridge’s Twitter account about continued building on the property. He’s set up another gun range, and a new building to accompany it, according to his posts and photos.
Banyai already has a permitted garage and attached apartment on the land that could stay.
Meanwhile, neighbors and town officials say the area has been somewhat quiet in recent months.
“There’s certainly a road ahead, I’m sure,” said Jessica Van Oort, who chairs the Pawlet Planning Commission. “But I think, as far as many people in the town are concerned, this is probably a good step.”