Guest Commentary 

Pinal County officials are abusing their power by harassing a popular bar/restaurant

Our story begins with a father and son, Dale and Spencer Bell. Dale has operated successful restaurants in both South Dakota and Wyoming. He and his son, Spencer, opened a new venture in Pinal County, on the flats next to the San Tan Mountains. Hence the restaurant's name: San Tan Flat.

After three years of jumping through hoops, they finally opened in 2005 with Pinal County's blessing. Shortly thereafter, Pinal County began to harass them mercilessly. County officials made them remove one of their two signs, reduced their road access from four entrances to one, and forced them to build a bigger parking lot. They also sent deputies out at night to measure decibel levels.

This sort of behavior usually indicates that some well-connected, turgid member of the community wants someone out of Dodge. In the older frontier times, they usually just sent the sheriff around to tell him, "Be out of town by sundown." These are less direct, less honest, weenie times.

Dale complied with all of the harassing demands, until the county turned its sights on his customers: Officials claimed it was illegal for them to dance to the music in the courtyard. They cited an ordinance from 1962 that required "dance halls, penny arcades and bowling alleys" to be in fully enclosed structures.

San Tan Flat is a restaurant and bar. As Dale said to me, "I've never seen a penny arcade in my lifetime. I've never been able to put a penny in a machine and have it do anything, I don't know how old you are, but I'm an old guy. ... This thing is pretty obsolete, even in its language."

With the help of the Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice, Dale went to court.

The Pinal County attorneys stated, at four separate times during the initial hearing, that the supervisors thought the outdoor stage at the country/Western saloon and steakhouse would be used for "mimes, puppet shows, poetry readings and art displays." Why, of course! Any cowboy worth his salt needs a little miming, and some poetry read to him every now and again. Those dang Bell boys deceived us!

Dale has determined that an upstanding member of the community, Pinal County Supervisor Sandie Smith, is directing the attacks against him. It's a county appointee, the Pinal County sheriff, who sends his deputies out three times a night to test the decibel levels. So far, they have had no luck.

I asked Dale why Sandie Smith was trying to make his life miserable. He answered, "Why is she doing it? Possibly petty jealousy over the success of the business; possibly because we did not grovel, or kiss her butt, which is apparently what she was expecting us to do after we were open and permitted."

He had some other ideas that involved millionaire developers, but it's all just speculation.

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that the longer the episode drags on, the more support the Bells get--from people like George Will, who wrote of their plight in his Washington Post column, and people like Dale and Spencer's customers. Quoting his customers, Dale told me, "They don't say they like it; they say they love it!"

The significance of this case lies not so much in the fact that the petty commissars of Pinal County are being exposed; rather, it verifies what we in the freedom movement have come to realize over the past few years.

Traditionally, it was government at the federal level that sent edicts from far away for the great unwashed, doing away with federalism and exceeding its limited jurisdiction in a rather tyrannical way. It seemed to make sense that when people are reduced to numbers and formulas, they would be treated like them. Now we see those close to us, here at home, behaving in similar fashion. Whether they use eminent domain, civil forfeiture or "smart growth" central planning, our local officials are showing a lust to control people, and to control property that they do not own.

As the bizarre case of San Tan Flat exemplifies, it is not the remoteness of the power that is corrupting. It is the power itself.

More by Jonathan Hoffman


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