Grassroots Tyranny at San Tan Flat
By Jennifer Perkins
Prosecuting a restaurant owner for allowing patrons to dance outdoors may sound like the premise for a sequel to the 1984 movie Footloose, but it is the real-life story of entrepreneur Dale Bell and his Arizona steakhouse, San Tan Flat.
IJ Arizona Chapter client Dale Bell with son Spencer are only trying to run their business without government interference.
Pinal County, Ariz., is the latest example of grassroots tyranny, prosecuting Dale for allowing outdoor dancing and imposing steep fines designed to put him out of business. Thankfully, IJ’s Arizona Chapter is defending Dale against Pinal County’s absurd prosecution.
Dale and his teenage son, Spencer, invested three years to make their dream a reality: a new family-oriented steakhouse resembling an old western mining encampment, complete with campfires, good food and live country music. The restaurant will one day be Dale’s legacy to Spencer.
Together, Dale and Spencer jumped through every regulatory hoop, making compromises to their original plans. They visited with hundreds of neighbors to garner support for the project. When Pinal County officials finally approved the plan for the restaurant, the father/son duo received a standing ovation from everyone at the county supervisor’s meeting, including the officials themselves.
Within months of San Tan Flat’s opening, however, the county changed its tune and began a campaign of harassment ranging from the absurd to the overtly hostile: inspecting the restaurant’s firewood; reducing approved signage; reducing the number of entrances from the highway; and adopting one of the state’s most stringent local noise restrictions. The county even sent out sheriff’s deputies two and three times a night to check the restaurant’s noise level, even though it is located nearly a quarter mile from any neighbor. (Despite the officers’ continual presence, San Tan Flat has never once violated the ordinance.) The county’s action is harassment, plain and simple.
“This case is about more than one county’s harassment of a single entrepreneur. It represents a dangerous national trend in which hard-working businesspeople are finding their rights curtailed by government officials who do not respect the constitutionally enshrined limits on their power.”
Unable to find a rational reason to shut down San Tan Flat, the county found an irrational one: it cited Dale for running an outdoor dance hall. The county took the laughable position that the instant a San Tan Flat patron gets up to dance, the restaurant is somehow magically transformed into a “dance hall.” The county now demands that Dale must act as the dance police or face the county’s ire because outdoor dancing is forbidden in Pinal County. A county hearing officer actually found Dale personally liable for this “violation” and fined him $5,000 plus $5,000 for every day Dale refuses to stop his customers from dancing—a level of fine that met with major public outcry and was later reduced.
The county’s unreasonable actions are not only hard to believe, they are unconstitutional, violating Dale’s right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government interference. Government’s grassroots tyrants should not be allowed to force him to bend to their every whim in dictating how he manages his business. That’s why IJ’s Arizona Chapter stepped in to help Dale, representing him in his appeal of the hearing officer’s ruling. IJ has also been instrumental in securing Dale and Spencer widespread and favorable coverage statewide in the court of public opinion.
This case is about more than one county’s harassment of a single entrepreneur. It represents a dangerous national trend in which hard-working businesspeople are finding their rights curtailed by government officials who do not respect the constitutionally enshrined limits on their power—and who use their powers in the most arbitrary way to punish those they oppose.
In representing Dale Bell, we continue IJ’s ongoing effort to counter big-government bullies wherever they menace honest enterprise. Thanks to IJ’s involvement, it is now Pinal County bureaucrats’ turn to face the music.
Jennifer Perkins is an IJ Arizona Chapter staff attorney.
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