Dance Gestapo

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.

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."

In 2003, Bell rode into Pinal County with a proven hand at steakhouses in Wyoming and South Dakota. What better place for a Wild West entrepreneur to set up shop than the mountains of Pinal County?

Smith and Pinal officials gave a standing ovation when Bell first presented San Tan Flat, a circle of five buildings with a courtyard, a stage, and enough cowboy memorabilia to put many museums to shame. The timing couldn't have been better. Just as Pinal County was bursting with Valley overgrowth, San Tan Flat opened its doors.

Then the war began. Rural neighbors complained about the noise from San Tan Flat's outdoor stage. A former politician (Bell organized Ron Paul's first campaign and lost a congressional seat to incumbent Tom Daschle in 1984), Bell wooed each naysayer. He visited in their homes, had them down for drinks. One by one, they agreed to support San Tan Flat.

Except one. Kristen Guerra, whose home is nearly a quarter-mile from San Tan Flat, vowed to call the sheriff every night to complain about noise. "She's certainly kept that promise," said Bell, who's now spent thousands of dollars in a yearlong legal battle with Pinal County.

The county has since snagged Bell's steakhouse on a number of beefed-up violations. First, they tried to penalize him for noise, but Pinal County didn't have a noise ordinance. So it created one of the strictest in Arizona and then sent sheriff's deputies to take hundreds of decibel measurements. San Tan Flat has never exceeded the strict, 60-decibel limit.

Next, Pinal officials went after San Tan Flat's number of paved parking spots. Bell would be fined, they said, unless he paved more desert. After Bell spent $40,000 to pave the "required" spots, officials reduced the required number by half.

Pinal officials gave Bell rules for his firewood, his entrances, his motorcycle patrons, and his signs. Bell adhered to them all. Then, one year and nearly $64,000 of legal fees, fines, and asphalt into the San Tan saga, Pinal officials got creative. On January 17, the county fined Bell $5,000 per day for allowing patrons to dance to country-Western music at San Tan Flat.

With a Stetson pulled over his copper hair, singer Lee Alexander was sipping an iced tea between performances at San Tan Flat. Pinal planning officials approved the stage Alexander would perform on, but at a January hearing, the same officials said they expected mimes and comedians to perform at the country-Western restaurant, not country-Western musicians.

"They're singling Dale out for some reason," Alexander said. "If you use the county's logic, every day care where kids dance outside is a dancehall, so is every charismatic church."

Alexander has been playing Western music in Arizona for about a decade. He's seen multitudes of folks dance outdoors in Pinal County, and never before has he seen a restaurant fined for being a dancehall.

About 20 minutes north of San Tan Flat and five minutes from Sandie Smith's mountainside home sits the Mammoth Steakhouse and Saloon, where Lee Alexander plays every Friday and Saturday night.

There, Alexander has watched Pinal County Supervisor Sandie Smith, who upheld fines against Bell, sit by while patrons danced under the stars.

"Sandie Smith sent a little girl to request my Johnny Cash medley," Alexander said of a recent gig at Mammoth. "Folks were dancing outside, and Sandie Smith sat there watching. She hasn't done anything to Mammoth or any other venue. It's not about dancing. She's just after Dale."