Dance Gestapo

Colorful San Tan Flat's owner says Pinal County's out to get him, and he's probably right

Pinal County Supervisor Sandie Smith stood at her front door, barefoot, and she did not want to talk.

She had ignored three phone calls, opportunities to answer claims that she is running restaurateur Dale Bell out of business.

"That's between the county attorney and him," Smith said. Actually it was Smith, not the county attorney, who ruled on June 30 that Bell pay as much as $189,000 in fines because patrons dance at his restaurant, San Tan Flat.

Outdoor dancing seems to be prohibited in Pinal County only at Dale Bell?s restaurant.
courtesy of Dale Bell
Outdoor dancing seems to be prohibited in Pinal County only at Dale Bell?s restaurant.

Now a national legal team is helping Bell sue Pinal County for a measly $1 and, more importantly, they say, for the right to operate his restaurant without government interference. Attorney Jennifer Perkins works for the Institute for Justice, an ACLU-like advocate for small businesses. Perkins argues that Pinal County has breached Arizona law and the U.S. Constitution by outlawing outdoor dancing.

"Requiring Dale to be the dance police is not reasonable," Perkins said, adding that Bell has the constitutional right to make a living without government harassment.

On September 18, Perkins will argue before the Pinal County Superior Court that Bell's rights have been violated. In return for Bell's $1 lawsuit, Pinal County Attorney James Walsh has asked the court to award the county a lien on Bell's land and restaurant if he doesn't pay all dance fines, an unspecified lawsuit amount for "damages," and the County Attorney's legal fees.

So if Bell doesn't pay what could total $189,000 in dancing fines as well as a lawsuit payout and the legal fees of county-paid attorneys, the county could take ownership of his mountainside property and buildings.

Officials claim San Tan Flat isn't a restaurant but a dancehall. And by Pinal ordinance, outdoor dancehalls are illegal.

"Outdoor dancing is not allowed in any zone in our county," deputy director of planning Dennis Rittenback said during Bell's January hearing. In a New Times interview last week, Deputy County Attorney Chris Roll contradicted that: "I've never heard that it's illegal to dance outside in Pinal County."

Apparently, Pinal County officials aren't on the same page about their dance ordinances. They do, however, agree that Bell should be fined. To do so, they cite a 1950s-era ordinance that dancehalls must be fully enclosed. Since San Tan Flat has an open courtyard, it's illegal, they contend.

The problem is, any fourth-grader could tell you San Tan Flat isn't a dancehall. Not unless dancehalls serve cold-water Maine lobster, shrimp, and salmon. Not unless dancehalls grind their own beef every morning, serve filet mignon for dinner, and sell beers at a bar until closing time.

While reports about Pinal County's poor roads and embryonic economy accumulate, county officials are spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours observing and fining Bell because his patrons dance outside.

Pinal County records paint San Tan Flat as a raucous dancehall in a sleepy Mayberry of picket fences. You get the idea that residents tending to their backyards are shaken from their gardening trances by cataclysmically loud music.

Actually, San Tan Flat is in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant's driveway turns directly off Hunt Highway. The closest neighbor is almost a quarter-mile away, and the closest complaining neighbor has a stockpile of junked cars reflecting the sun out of her neighbor's backyard.

An abandoned airplane hangar, some snake-infested RVs, and a mobile home sit in the vacant desert separating San Tan Flat from the closest residential street, nearly two city blocks away. Stand under the moon out here, and you'll hear more whirring from traffic on Hunt Highway than music from San Tan Flat.

Recently, it was Dale Bell's lucky night. It was raining, so nobody would be dancing in his courtyard. But even on this drizzling Thursday night, 53 vehicles dotted the oversized San Tan Flat parking lot.

While the rain fell on the outdoor stage and controversial courtyard, families and couples sat inside, enjoying their dinners. In the restaurant's dining room, wagon wheel light fixtures illuminate aged leather and rusted Western artifacts — lanterns, saddles, and memorabilia.

"Sandie Smith is committing political suicide by coming after this place," Bell declared, walking to his office. "People love this restaurant, and she's trying to close it. That's not a smart move."

In his office, Bell walked past a wall of oil-painted Western heroes, each donning a Stetson: John Wayne, Ronald Reagan ("My old boss," Bell said), Roy Rogers, and WWII ace and first American Football League commissioner Joe Foss ("My old neighbor in South Dakota," he said).

Bell lifted a 400-page brick of legal documents from his spat with Pinal County. Next to that sat a background check the FBI ran on him when he worked for the Ronald Reagan campaign and then was a staffer for the president.

"The FBI spent $80,000 checking me out, but apparently I don't make the grade in Pinal," Bell said. "Had I known about all this, I never would have started a restaurant out here."

Bell furrowed his brow, looking a bit like Jack Nicholson. "I really don't care if people dance or not," he said. "It's freedom of [expression]. I'm not going to infringe on their right. I happen to believe in the Constitution."

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5 comments
Roy T.
Roy T.

Been to the Mammoth many times and they don't have dancing under the stars like your story says. They have dancing inside. To dance outside patrons would have to crowd what is about a 300 square-foot patio out back with picnic tables on it. That fact, which your writer got wrong shoots lots of holes!

Jack T
Jack T

Regardless of whether the San Tan is a restaurant or a saloon, the heart of the matter is the continued abuse of power by local government. For Sandy Smith to sit at the Mammoth and allow the same 'goings ons' that she is opposing at the San Tan is a blatant abuse of her position. The example cited in the article of forcing the San Tan to pave a number of parking spots then reduce that number after the paving was done is an example of same abuse by everyone in the Pinal County government. Everyone involved should be held accountable.

Kristi Crow
Kristi Crow

Marcus: You are the guy that has not done his research. By all accounts of the "Pinal County Hearing Office" legal records show San Tan Flat sells twice as much food as Arizona requires to be classified as a restaurant. You suggest it is a "saloon"...like that is something bad??? Facts documented in Tribune from the "Hearing" show they (San Tan Flat Steakhouse) sell twice as much food as beverage which clearly makes them a restaurant...a very popular one at that!

Marcus
Marcus

This story is very one sided and is mostly all America bull****. Apparently Bell has made promises concerning his (Saloon that sells food) that he failed to follow through with, and had initiated the first use of an attorney before the County was involved. He does not consider his neighbors and is in flagrant disregard for their concerns.Too bad you did not thoroughly research this issue before you rushed to print such a one sided story. Shame on you.

Marcus
Marcus

A very one sided all American bull **it story that only tells a small part of the story.Unfortunatley Bell does not stand by his word and has apparently made promises about his (saloon that serves food) that were not followed through with.Shame on you for not doing more research into this one sided story

 
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