WEST PAWLET — The ruling is 29 pages, but the message to Slate Ridge landowner Daniel Banyai from a Superior Court judge is simple: Remove the unpermitted buildings from your property, or you’re going to jail.
Citing a “continual, unrepentant, and willful disregard of the court’s order,” Environmental Division Judge Thomas Durkin found Banyai in contempt of court for refusing to dismantle structures on his property that were built without proper permitting. The buildings were formerly used as a weapons training facility, which unnerved his neighbors.
“The court concludes that this is an extraordinary circumstance, and that prospective, coercive measures are necessary to limit future delay and violations of the court’s order,” Durkin said.
Those “coercive measures” also include a $200 per day fine retroactive to Jan. 14. But the fines will be purged if Banyai meets a series of deadlines for dismantling the unpermitted structures and allows the town access to the property to verify his progress.
And if those deadlines are not met?
“Upon the filing of photographic evidence and an accompanying sworn affidavit stating the date the evidence was collected with the Court, the Court will issue a writ of mittimus for the imprisonment of Daniel Banyai. Additionally, if respondent fails to accommodate the Town’s site inspections as specified here, he shall also be subject to imprisonment. The writ of mittimus will call for Daniel Banyai to immediately report to [Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility] in Rutland, or otherwise direct the Rutland County Sheriff’s Office to deliver Danial Banyai to MVRCF.”
If that happens, the town will be permitted to enter the property and complete the work itself, and fines will continue at $200 per day until the work is completed.
“Daniel Banyai will remain imprisoned until the Town or his agents complete the work,” Durkin ordered.
Durkin ruled March 5, 2021 that the buildings on Banyai’s property were built without obtaining necessary permits. Durkin ordered the facility closed and fined Banyai $46,600 for noncompliance. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the ruling on appeal in January of 2022.
A year later, when the buildings had not been demolished and the fines had not been paid, Pawlet sought to have Banyai held in contempt, and moved to foreclose on the property. Banyai paid $52,965.35 in fines and interest in early April of 2022.
But tension continued, and once an inspection took place, officials learned that Banyai had not only failed to remove the buildings, but erected a series of farming structures on the property. In July, through attorney Merrill Bent, Pawlet renewed its contempt of court complaint, seeking fines and imprisonment.
The motion listed more than 17 such structures, including a pole barn, animal runs and a silo, as well as two shooting ranges, a schoolhouse and steel shipping containers.
Banyai appeared before Durkin at a hearing on the contempt motion in November at Rutland Superior Court. He testified for nearly two hours, and admitted during his testimony that all but one of the 22 structures that the court ordered removed still remain on his property.
All of the structures in question — some added after he was issued a notice of violation from the town — are now exempt from municipal zoning laws, because he has shifted their purpose to agricultural uses, Banyai argued.
Durkin was not amused, and said so in his ruling Wednesday.
“Finally, to the extent respondent testified that it was his belief that the court’s order did not apply to the ‘agricultural buildings’ on the property or to buildings with less than 100 square feet without four walls, a roof, and a foundation, the court finds those arguments similarly untimely, impermissible, and ingenuine,” Durkin said.
Noting that the litigation began in September of 2019 and the ruling was final as of Jan.14, 2022, Durkin found that Banyai’s actions “have been actions to delay or circumvent compliance. As such, the court does not find respondent’s assertions of good faith efforts or mistake of law to be credible. Rather, the court concludes that respondent’s ongoing delay, untimely arguments, and efforts with the school building to be experimentations with ongoing disobedience, further attempts to circumvent court orders, and willful contempt.”
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