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Washington Diary: Lake Lucky, Here We Come!

Five rms, two fpls, ocean vue. Mother-in-law and/or Secret Service suite. Bring Weed Whacker. Asking $5.9 million.

Time cover

SANTA BARBARA (TIME, Sep. 29) -- This was an offer--for the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif.--all too many were able to refuse. The Western White House sat on the market for 13 months until the perfect buyer, one who can print money if he has to, showed an interest: Uncle Sam. Republican Congressman Ralph Regula of Ohio, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of federal parks, is brokering a deal whereby Congress will appropriate $5 million and give it to California, which will in turn give it to the Reagans for the 100-year-old adobe house and grounds they paid $480,000 for in 1974. Then the state, with $4 million that Governor Pete Wilson has pledged to raise privately, will operate and maintain the spread.

If Regula is paying a 1000% premium, I have a four-bedroom, two-bath, with a partial view of the Washington Monument if you hang out of the dormer window, that I'd like to show him. Even allowing for sentimental value, $5 million is a stiff price to pay in this age of balanced budgets. Most presidential properties are bequeathed, gratis, by their owners at death to the National Parks Service. The government already has more parks than it knows what to do with, thanks to congressional pork--such as Steamtown (Pa.) and Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. Meanwhile, there's not enough money to keep up national treasures like the Grand Canyon. User fees at parks like Yellowstone have shot up like Old Faithful.

Regula says he fell in love with the 688-acre Rancho del Cielo when he visited in 1990 and Reagan taught him how to build a notched-wood fence. It's hard to find a discouraging word about the project--who wants to be a grinch when the Gipper is ailing? The tightest-fisted among us would not want to turn around and see Rancho del Subdivision--though in this case commercial development seems a tad unlikely, given the rugged terrain 2,000 ft. up a narrow, twisting seven-mile road. But Paul Pritchard, president of the National Park Trust, calls the purchase "highly irregular," given that the fund for taking care of well-established parks is in "desperate shape." And California Democratic Congressman George Miller says he finds no justification for paying millions to a President who railed against pork.

The ranch was just a getaway, but Reagan the actor knew how to turn a piece of dirt into a stage for a simple cowboy, gamboling in the wide-open spaces, in touch with the eternal verities. The place is already Disneyfied: Climb Mount Rhino, the resting place of the family pets as well as Ronnie's steed Little Man! Visit Heart Rock, where Ronnie and Nancy carved their initials! See where Queen Elizabeth slept! Launch a boat on Lake Lucky, the pond where Reagan kept his goldfish! But don't expect Wally World, or even the run of the place. The ranch is likely to be available for private tours by appointment only. What do you expect for $5 million?

-- By Margaret Carlson





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