PAWLET, Vt. — Fear has gradually spread in the town of Pawlet.
In the hills west of town — which is where the trouble started — the houses are remote, separated by wind-scoured stretches of cropland. Those people are the most jittery.
Some of them have installed cameras with infrared lights so they could pick up figures that might be moving in the dark around their houses. A few have invested in bulletproof vests.
None of it makes them feel entirely safe. Michelle Tilander, 63, a retired physical therapist who moved to West Pawlet 10 years ago, said she had written a letter to be opened in case she or her husband should be hurt or killed.
“The police come in, they’ll find that envelope and they’ll know who to question,” she said.
She is talking about Daniel Banyai, a 47-year-old New Yorker who, attracted by Vermont’s relaxed gun laws, bought 30 acres in this rural town of around 1,400 and transformed it into his dream project, a training camp where visitors could practice shooting as if engaged in armed combat.
Whether those fears are warranted is a question that has preoccupied Vermont law enforcement for months. Certainly, the dispute has escalated over three years from a zoning matter into something more combustible, as Mr. Banyai resisted the town’s demands to dismantle his weapons training facility, Slate Ridge. Anonymous threats to his opponents have appeared online.
He has argued that his project is protected under the Second Amendment, and, over social media, has called for fellow gun rights advocates to back him up.
“I’m never leaving this land,” he said in an interview. “And I didn’t ask for this war to start, but I’m going to see it through. I want to see through my victory because I bought this land free and clear.”
These collisions do not typically happen in Vermont, whose lenient approach to guns grew out of a centuries-old culture of hunting and farming. But just as school shootings have shaken those shared assumptions, so too have the belligerent public politics of the Trump era.
The State Police have resisted stepping in, saying they do not believe Mr. Banyai has violated any Vermont state law. But a January court order set the stage for confrontation, ruling that Mr. Banyai must stop using Slate Ridge for training, and the town is now seeking a permanent injunction that could culminate in foreclosure.
“The question is, kind of, how does this end?” said Jessica Van Oort, 44, a Pawlet shop owner who serves as chair of the town’s planning commission.
For stretches of the last year, she added, the tension in the town seemed to merge with something larger happening in the country.
“Everybody in the nation has become quite aware of the threat of armed insurrection,” she said. “It’s not foreign to anyone in the U.S. to think of people who have guns and want to defend their freedoms and don’t feel that the laws apply to them.”
A stranger comes to town
Mr. Banyai, a stocky man from upstate New York with a bushy, untrimmed beard, presented himself to Pawlet’s development board in 2018 as “a veteran who is passionate about guns.” He was mysterious about his past, alluding to overseas service in the Middle East but refusing to offer any details.
His goal was to open a tactical weapons training site featuring as few limits as possible, allowing firearms banned or frowned upon in other places, he said in an interview this month. He chose Vermont specifically because it allowed “constitutional carry,” or carrying a weapon without a permit, he said.
He was aware that similar projects — like a gun range planned for the town of Warner, N.H. — had been blocked by community opposition, and sought to avoid that outcome. His predecessor’s mistake, he said, was trying to obtain licenses from the town before starting operation.
“He went to ‘Let me ask for permission,’” Mr. Banyai said. “Here, I asked for forgiveness.”
In front of the building he uses for instruction, Mr. Banyai flies the flag of the Green Mountain Boys, the militia formed in 1770 to keep out land surveyors from New York, then a British province.
On his land, in facilities he said cost $1.6 million, visitors can re-enact a range of field exercises — a suburban house, for home invasions; a large open space surrounded by berms, for carjacking and vehicle assaults; and shipboard structures, for high-seas piracy. Months of protests, he said, have made such exercises relevant to many Americans.
“People are more believing the hypotheticals with all the rioting,” he said. “People are getting more conscientious of, you know, how do I defend myself?”
He said that most of his visitors came from states with more restrictive gun laws, like New York and Massachusetts, and that he allowed a militia to train at the site, though he would not identify it. Mr. Banyai said he had selected the plot in West Pawlet because it was isolated and would not disturb the neighbors.
That turned out to be wrong.
Ms. Tilander recalls an afternoon in 2018, when she and her husband, Paul, were sitting in their backyard, and began to hear a kind of shooting they had never heard before.
The Tilanders are gun owners themselves; for years, they belonged to a sportsmen’s club, enjoying afternoons of target shooting followed by convivial steak dinners. What they were hearing from Mr. Banyai’s land was something entirely different.
“All of a sudden, we hear ARs — several ARs — going off, all at the same time, over and over and over,” she said, referring to variants of the AR-15 line. “Paul just said, ‘What is going on around here? It sounds like Vietnam.’”
‘Everybody’s afraid of him’
The neighbors mobilized against Mr. Banyai’s new weapons range in the usual way. They complained about the noise. They circulated a petition. They showed up at meetings.
One adjoining neighbor “explained that as an owner of a horse stable they have a lot to lose, that they do not want to live through a war, and that they were there first,” read notes from a town development board meeting in 2018.
One reason they were irritated is because Vermont’s land use law, known as Act 250, is notoriously burdensome, requiring permits for anything built for a commercial purpose.
“People do get bent out of shape when you are flouting the rules everyone else is following,” said Merrill E. Bent, the town’s attorney since the summer of 2019. “They’re like, wait a minute, I had to get a permit for my chicken coop.”
But over the months that followed, the zoning dispute turned into another, less familiar kind of problem.
It turned out Mr. Banyai had no desire to win over the town. Instead, he fought back tenaciously in court, arguing that his weapons site did not require land use permits from the state because he did not charge for admission. At a town meeting, he accused town officials, without evidence, of corruption, homophobia and membership in the Ku Klux Klan. He made it clear he would not back down.
“If there’s two types of people in this world — people that are strong and people that are weak,” he explained in an interview, “I’m among the strong percentage.”
Threats against the complaining neighbors began to appear on Slate Ridge’s Facebook page, unsigned and cryptic, alongside right-wing memes and ominous photographs of stockpiles of weapons.
In 2019, the feed featured a picture of the Tilanders’ house with the caption, “Many of you ask how can I get closer to Slate Ridge. Some people living close are leaving. Here is the house the folks are moving out of. The property will be available real soon.”
Other threats targeted Mandy Hulett, who lives next door to Slate Ridge. Posts called for the “eradication” of the Huletts and listed their home address, and asked followers to find an S.U.V. “to shoot up and then blow up,” and specified the make and model of the car the Huletts had given their teenage daughter.
Mr. Banyai has said he does not write or supervise the postings. Last month, however, a judge granted Ms. Hulett a two-year stalking order against Mr. Banyai, noting that although Mr. Banyai denied controlling Slate Ridge’s social media, “the court did not find that testimony to be credible.”
An investigative news outlet, VT Digger, picked up the story, and the neighbors looked into Mr. Banyai’s past. An Army spokesman confirmed that Mr. Banyai had served briefly in the 1990s, showing up in records as a private, the Army’s lowest rank.
More recently, he had legal troubles in New York. In 2018, court records showed, he had been banned from the campus of Pace University, where he was pursuing a master’s degree in homeland security, for threatening an assistant dean. In 2019, he pleaded guilty to a class D felony charge of criminal weapons possession, and is awaiting sentencing in that case. He has filed a motion to vacate his guilty plea, said his lawyer in the case, Anthony C. Cillis.
His New York pistol permit has been suspended pending the outcome of the case, according to the Dutchess County District Attorney’s Office.
But in Vermont, the efforts to shutter his training site seemed at a standstill. Ms. Tilander said she believed the main reason was that Vermont’s law enforcement bodies, from the town level up to the state, were fearful of an armed confrontation.
“Nobody wants to go in there because everybody’s afraid of him,” she said. “We’re 99 and nine-tenths percent sure from everything he said, he has a big cache of heavy-duty weaponry and explosive material.”
In fact, in a state that has long relied on voluntary compliance, the problem of Slate Ridge seemed to fall between jurisdictions.
The state’s Natural Resources Board — which requires permits for any commercial development — refused to send its inspectors to Slate Ridge because of concerns that Mr. Banyai might be dangerous, and in 2018 and 2019 asked law enforcement to take over the case, said Evan Meenan, associate general counsel for the body.
The State Police refused, explaining that land use has never fallen within their responsibilities. Since then, the State Police have also investigated at least 10 complaints against Mr. Banyai without finding information to warrant any criminal charge, said Michael Schirling, the state’s commissioner of public safety. Fear, he said, was not a factor.
The police “are in fairly regular contact with folks there, as result of a number of investigations that occurred,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone make that assessment.”
For his part, Mr. Banyai dismisses the suggestion that he would ever use force against the police, who he says are “already scared to death of me.” He says he has regular visits from the police, as well as the F.B.I. and A.T.F., who enforce federal weapons laws.
“I tell police all the time, if I have to come into handcuffs, call me, I can come down or I’ll just meet you at the gate and surrender myself,” he said.
In recent weeks, he has made the conflict into a political cause, declaring his candidacy for town selectman under the motto “Make Pawlet Great Again.”
‘No safe room’
Whatever the outcome of the dispute, it has already left its mark on Pawlet.
Last February, Slate Ridge’s Facebook page invited followers to attend the town’s Select Board meeting with weapons and trauma kits; the meeting was canceled because of the coronavirus, but some of the town employees were deeply shaken.
Later, the feed published a photograph of Pawlet’s Town Hall, a plain wooden-framed structure that has stood since 1881.
“No Alarm, No Security Camera, Single Pane Windows, No Deadbolts, 30-40 Minutes Police Response Time, Dead Zone For All Cell Service, No Safe Room,” the caption read, and went on to list the names of six town employees who work there.
In March, the town clerk requested funding to install security cameras in the building.
Ms. Van Oort, who is running for the Select Board, said it dawned on her gradually how heavily the town relies on a spirit of voluntary cooperation.
“The real difficulty is, when someone just decides not to obey a civil law, what happens?” she said.
Indeed, no one knows what will happen, later this spring, if the court injunction is made permanent and Mr. Banyai is asked to dismantle his gun ranges and pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines to the town.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, a former Progressive state representative who has urged the state to intervene, drew a parallel with the Jan. 6 events in Washington, when “what everyone thought would be a cranky protest” deteriorated into violence.
“That’s the kind of escalation that I’m afraid of,” he said. “There’s a Thomas Jefferson quote, something like, ‘There’s nothing I trust more than an individual citizen. There’s nothing I fear more than the mob.’ But where is that line?”
Many say the conflict has drawn neighbors closer together — the Biden voters and the Trump voters — in the shared desire to return the community to an earlier, more peaceful state. But it is also true that something in the town has hardened.
If Mr. Banyai does eventually leave the area, Ms. Hulett said, the neighbors are considering taking up a collection to buy up the property where Slate Ridge stands, to ensure that the gun ranges are never used again.
“After having this experience, you don’t want a random neighbor moving in there,” she said.
She said she now looks at Pawlet, where her family has farmed since the 18th century, as an excessively trusting place — naïve, in the way that small towns are. Or that is what it was, anyway.
“I think we all kind of let our guard down,” she said. “We’re just not equipped to deal with people like him.”
Jack Begg contributed research.