As a child growing up on the south side of Chicago, Frances Dee sought escape from the inner city at a public park along the banks of Lake Michigan.
Now 85, Frances Dee McCrea, widow of actor Joel McCrea, and her sons have essentially donated most of the family's 300-acre ranch in northeast Thousand Oaks as a public refuge, for children and adults alike.
In a deal made final Thursday, the Conejo Recreation and Park District purchased 220 acres of the family ranch for $1.95 million. But through trust funds set up by Joel McCrea, the family will donate $1.8 million back to the district over the next 20 years.
The deal, arranged by park district manager Tex Ward, gives the agency a long-sought asset and allows the McCreas to preserve a beloved family home.
"My mother always told me that it meant so much to her as a child to have a place to get out and see people and get fresh air," Peter McCrea said. "That stuck with her forever. It really means a lot to her to see children run around and enjoy a place like this."
Under the deal, Frances Dee McCrea will continue to live in the former bunkhouse that fronts Moorpark Road. Her grandson, Wyatt McCrea, and his wife Lisa will also live on the 80-acre portion of the property not purchased by the district.
The remaining 220 acres of rolling hills dotted with sycamores and threaded by creeks will be owned and managed by the district. In a secluded canyon at the east end of the district property sits the 60-year-old McCrea family home, where Peter and his two brothers were raised.
The new acquisition is adjacent to a 75-acre parcel donated to the district by the family in 1981 and designated a wildlife preserve.
"We are very fortunate to have a family as giving as the McCreas in this town," said Mike Berger, board chairman of the park district. Berger said that if possible, he would like to see the district set up a public fishing hole for children there.
"But we're not talking water slides here," said Berger, a Moorpark school principal. "We want to protect it and keep the natural beauty of the area."
The ranch house could also accommodate small groups for working weekends or other activities, Ward said.
"It's a beautiful retreat back there," he said.
The ranch, at the foot of Norwegian Grade in the northeast end of Thousand Oaks just south of Moorpark, was purchased by Joel and Frances McCrea in 1933. The young actors built the large farmhouse with a stunning view of the land. Peter and his brothers, Joel Dee and David, grew up there.
"It was heaven, the best possible place to grow up," Peter McCrea said. "And we were blessed with great parents, too."
Peter, who has lived at the ranch, is planning a move to the East Coast. His brothers ranch in New Mexico.
The family had previously offered the property for sale and had considered various sizes and shapes of developments that would still preserve some of the land's open space.
But the deal to turn the property over to the park district gives the family the best possible outcome, Peter McCrea said.
"We always wanted to see the ranch preserved," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of love and sentiment attached to this land; it's not just real estate."
McCrea said Ward, a McCrea family friend, proposed the deal that gave the family the answer it had been looking for.
"The family benefits and, above all, we're happy that the public benefits," McCrea said.
In an innovative financial arrangement, Ward proposed that the cash-strapped district use its Self-Insurance Trust Fund to finance the purchase. The McCrea family then made an irrevocable pledge to turn over family trusts to the district, which will total $1.8 million over the next 20 years.
At least one-third of the money will be paid within 10 years and the balance is due by 2005. The remaining money due could be paid sooner, depending on the life spans of the family members.
The arrangement allows the district to purchase the property now while the McCreas continue to earn dividends on the funds and secure a tax advantage through the trusts, Ward said.
"That's what is unique about this arrangement," Ward said. "Given our financial situation, we would not have been able to buy the property. The trust aspect is the deal maker."
He said use of the district's self-insurance fund is legal and ethical.
"An insurance company does not deposit all its premiums in the bank and hold them there; they invest," he said. "One of our criteria for use of those funds was liquidity. That's why we couldn't build a park with it."
Thousand Oaks Councilman Andy Fox commended the district.
"In today's age, when the park district has taken large hits in the last couple of state budgets, they have to become more creative with financing," he said.
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Land Deal 220 acres of McCrea family ranch is being purchased by Conejo Recreation and Park District. Source: Conejo Recreation and Park District