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California and the West

Conservative Group Weighs Purchase of Reagan's Ranch

March 03, 1998|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A conservative political group in Fairfax, Va., could decide as early as today whether to purchase the Santa Barbara-area spread that doubled as Ronald Reagan's Western White House and make it a historical landmark and tourist attraction.

The Young Americans Foundation, a 28-year-old group that promotes conservative principles on college campuses, will decide at a board meeting whether to purchase the ranch where the former president often escaped the pressures of Washington, Executive Director James Taylor said.

"The reason we're interested is because we want to protect and preserve it," spokesman Ron Robinson said, emphasizing that no deal has been finalized.

The foundation declined to disclose details of the pending sale, and Reagan's Bel-Air office would not comment on whether there are other bidders. But the 680-acre ranch was considered overpriced when it was listed last summer for $5.95 million with Sotheby's International and was rarely shown.

The 87-year-old Reagan, who has Alzheimer's disease, lives in Bel-Air and no longer visits his once-beloved hideaway in the Santa Ynez mountains 29 miles north of Santa Barbara.

Confusion has reigned since the ranch went up for sale. Although many of the Reagan faithful cherish the memories it holds of a jeans-clad president relaxing and riding with his wife, Nancy, there was considerable dispute over whether taxpayer funds should be spent to preserve it.

Gov. Pete Wilson endorsed a proposal in September by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) to spend $5 million in federal funds to buy the property. The notion set off an explosion of criticism by local Reagan loyalists who said the former president would object to the idea as an abuse of public money; the plan was scuttled.

The late Rep. Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara) advocated private purchase of the property as a historical landmark until he died last year. His wife, Lois, who is running to succeed him, favors the same course.

The foundation has agreed in principle to do just that in a deal that would help preserve the Reagan legacy as well as the image the ranch helped promote. During his administration, Reagan often countered his status as the nation's oldest president with robust images of him riding a horse or splitting wood.

In an anniversary tribute to his wife six years ago, Reagan wrote of post-White House trips to Rancho del Cielo--ranch in the sky, which "if not Heaven itself, probably has the same ZIP Code."

"Nothing draws a couple closer together than to find a pretty spot, maybe a ukulele and a canoe--Nancy's idea of the perfect romantic setting--and share happy thoughts of the past," Reagan wrote.

The ranch features the wooden corrals Reagan built, a fact he once proudly announced to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on a 1992 visit before the two world leaders toured the area in a sport utility vehicle bearing the license plate GIPPER. Queen Elizabeth once trekked through mud in a four-wheel-drive to reach the secluded property.

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