Vermont gun center must rid property of buildings by summer

February 9, 2023 GMT

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont man has until summer to remove all unpermitted structures on a 30-acre firearms training center in Pawlet that neighbors complain is a menace.

The property, known as Slate Ridge, includes multiple buildings and two firing ranges on land about the size of 30 football fields (12 hectares). Authorities say owner Daniel Banyai built the facility without proper zoning permits. It has been at the center of various legal actions since September 2019.

In a scathing order issued Wednesday, the Vermont Environmental Court said that Banyai was in contempt of court for deliberately flouting a series of court orders issued since the legal case began. This time, he faces jail and fines that could exceed $100,000 if he fails to comply by June 23.

The fines are stacking up at a rate of $200 a day because Banyai has not followed a series of court orders calling for him to remove a number of buildings, including what is called a “school house;” and other structures, as well as shooting ranges that were constructed without the required town zoning permits, the court said.

“Respondent has demonstrated a willfulness, perhaps even an enthusiasm, for disregarding the Town’s Bylaws, this Court’s Orders, and the authority of the Judiciary,” the Environmental Court said in an order issued Wednesday by Judge Thomas Durkin. The Environmental Court is charged with, among other duties, hearing appeals of Vermont municipal enforcement actions.

Banyai bought the property in 2013. In 2017, he began operating what he calls a firearms training facility, though the property is only permitted for a garage with an apartment on the grounds.

Slate Ridge neighbors have complained for some time about the gunfire and what they say are threats and intimidation by Banyai and his supporters. Many neighbors say they are afraid to talk publicly because they fear for their safety.

In April 2021, Banyai described his property to The Associated Press as a safe and environmentally friendly place for people to discharge their firearms. The facility also offers lessons in first aid and “anything to do with the outdoors and firearms.”

In 2019, the town first issued a violation notice to Banyai for building a number of structures on the property without town zoning approval. In March 2021, the Environmental Court ordered Banyai to end any firearms training at the center and remove unpermitted structures.

The Vermont Supreme Court rejected Banyai’s appeal in January 2022.

Since the case has already been decided by the Vermont Supreme Court, it’s unclear if Banyai has any further avenue of appeal. The Associated Press reached out to his attorney for comment on Thursday.

In response to Slate Ridge, Vermont State Sen. Philip Baruth, a Democrat and Progressive from Burlington, introduced a bill in the Legislature earlier this year to ban paramilitary training centers in the state. After a Thursday hearing on the proposal at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Baruth said he introduced the bill after hearing officials say there was nothing they could do about Slate Ridge because it didn’t violate any state laws.

“That can’t stand,” Baruth said.

In the 29-page decision issued Wednesday, the Environmental Court laid out a three-step, 135-day compliance schedule for Banyai to remove all unpermitted structures on the property as well as the earthen berms built around the two shooting ranges.

If he complies, he won’t have to pay the fine. If he fails to comply by June 23, the $200-a-day fines will come to about $105,000, which he will have to pay along with being ordered to report to jail. Meanwhile, town officials would be allowed to enter the property and remove any unpermitted structures, charging all costs to Banyai.