Institute for Justice Defeats AZ Dance Ban

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 1, 2008

Arlington, Va.—Yesterday, the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter defeated a ridiculous government demand that forced Arizona entrepreneur Dale Bell to ban dancing outside his Country & Western steakhouse, San Tan Flat, or else face fines of almost $200,000 a year.

“This business is our American Dream,” said Dale, who runs San Tan Flat with his 17-year-old son and business partner, Spencer. “I’m very pleased that freedom and common sense have prevailed. It is hard enough to run a business these days without having to jump through completely arbitrary hoops bureaucrats can put in your way.”

San Tan Flat is a popular steakhouse in Pinal County—located between Phoenix and Tucson—that provides live country music in its outdoor courtyard. Customers often dance to the family-friendly entertainment under the desert stars. County officials, however, dusted off an obscure 60-year-old zoning ordinance to argue that every time one of Dale’s customers swayed to the music the steakhouse instantly morphed into a “dance hall.” According to the old law, dancing outdoors in a “dance hall” is strictly forbidden.

During a hearing yesterday, Superior Court Judge William O’Neil strongly disagreed, stating, “When a local government restricts freedoms it’s a dangerous thing.” Judge O’Neil struck down the Pinal County ruling, finding and stating, “San Tan Flat is not an enterprise for dance.”

Jennifer Perkins, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing Dale, said, “Pinal County’s obsession with dancing was a ruse they used to harass these small businessmen, but we’re hoping that harassment has now been put to rest once and for all. We’re literally ready to kick up our heels and do a victory dance to celebrate Dale and Spencer’s restored economic liberty.”

One year ago, on May 16, 2007, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors upheld the dance ban against Dale, subjecting him to the steep financial penalties. The Board also made several absurd claims, including stating that public parks may also qualify as dance halls and that Dale’s stage should be used for puppet and mime shows.

Shortly after San Tan Flat opened in 2005, Pinal County officials began harassing Dale. They forced him to reduce the number of entrances San Tan Flat had off the highway from four to one, restricted him from advertising with more than one sign and a government agent even made a special trip to scrutinize the restaurant’s firewood. Government agents then started showing up three times a night to see if Dale violated the county’s very restrictive noise ordinance—adopted after the steakhouse’s opening. Despite months of constant monitoring, San Tan Flat never once violated the noise regulation. So the bureaucrats dusted off the dance ban.

This outrageous abuse of local government power turned Pinal County into a national laughingstock. Drew Carey, host of The Price is Right, featured San Tan Flat in his sixth episode of The Drew Carey Project for ReasonTV. Nationally syndicated columnist George F. Will recently wrote that the Pinal County bureaucrats demonstrate that “there must be a judicial leash on governments to prevent them from arbitrarily asserting that the plain language of a statute means something that it plainly does not say.” Judge O’Neil bridled that abuse with his ruling yesterday.

Tim Keller, executive director of the IJ Arizona Chapter, said, “Dale’s fight has never been just about San Tan Flat, but about the right of all entrepreneurs who face arbitrary and abusive government power. The Institute for Justice will not rest until this fundamental right is secure for all Arizonans. Dale’s victory is a wonderful victory for economic liberty.”