|By Kimberly Pierceall, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 9, 2005 - When your house guest is Richard Nixon and he's in town for some quiet time to write his State of the Union address, having noisy neighbors will never do.
Same goes when the Shah of Iran's family is over to get away from protesters outside their Beverly Hills home.
And when Frank Sinatra wants to use your place for one of his weddings, it's nice not having neighbors peeking over the hedges.
That might be why the late Walter Annenberg, a former ambassador and father of TV Guide, bought 650 acres of sand and scrub surrounding his already enormous Rancho Mirage estate.
Now, Annenberg's former sandbox is the last large swatch of undeveloped land in the heart of the Coachella Valley. The square-mile of dirt has the city of Rancho Mirage dreaming of a luxury hotel and golf course resort and two owners trying to share one shovel to build it.
"There isn't that much land around here anymore," said Alan Seman, a member of the Rancho Mirage City Council for 17 years. "This thing stands out like a sore thumb."
The land could fetch at least $130 million -- but it's not for sale.
The current owners, an Iranian expatriate and a Coachella Valley developer, have been searching for the right company with the right vision to build high-end homes and a golf course.
The city wants a hotel, too, a project that would bring in hotel and property taxes.
"The property is probably the best piece of property in the desert," said Seman.
The land is flat, generally wind-free and sits across Bob Hope Drive from Annenberg's former estate and final resting place, Sunnylands -- a private golf course still visited by presidents and dignitaries.
Annenberg bought the 650-acre parcel known as "Section 31" for about $1.5 million in 1968 to create a buffer around his estate.
That helped keep prying eyes away when President Nixon penned his last State of the Union there between rounds of golf in 1974.
It also put some 650 acres between Prince Charles and the commoners of Rancho Mirage later that year when the prince stopped by while on shore leave with the Royal Navy.
In 1976, that swatch of desert provided a sense of privacy when Frank Sinatra was marrying his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, at Sunnylands.
The secluded estate also seemed like the ideal haven for the former Shah of Iran during the revolution in 1979. The Shah declined Annenberg's offer, but the ambassador welcomed the Iranian leader's mother and sister when protestors forced them out of their Beverly Hills home.
Annenberg died in 2002, but his influence is still felt in Rancho Mirage. He placed legal restrictions on how the land could be developed.
No more than 1,932 homes. No garish architecture. No mobile homes. No retail. No hotel -- unless it has more than four stars, and even then it's a maybe.
Saed J. Ahmari bought the property from Annenberg in 1977. Ahmari then immediately sold 60 percent of the property to Iranian expatriate Abdol Rashid Boroumand and his family and the other 40 percent to Iranian Elaheh Rashidian and his family.
Coachella Valley developer Peter Solomon bought Rashidian's stake in 2003.
Solomon is interested in developing a golf course, a luxury-home community and maybe a resort hotel .
There are already more than one hundred golf courses in the valley, and 15 are in Rancho Mirage. But only 9 percent of the valley's hotel rooms are in Rancho Mirage.
Toll Brothers Inc., a nationally known luxury housing developer, was until recently in talks with Solomon and Boroumand, but the company didn't share Solomon's vision, he said.
"I was hoping by now that they would have come to a final agreement," said Rancho Mirage Mayor Ron Meepos.
The city has even created a subcommittee devoted solely to the 650 acres.
"When they agree on something that suits the city, the city will review it and approve it," said Dana Hobart, a member of the Rancho Mirage City Council . Council members been meeting with Solomon and Boroumand since last September to get updates on their progress finding a developer.
Due to the way the ownership agreement is set up, the land can't be divided, so the two owners have to come up with one master plan.
"We're joined at the hip," said Solomon.
Boroumand isn't keen on the hotel plan and Annenberg's wife, Leonore, hasn't given the go ahead yet.
"I don't think a hotel is feasible," said Boroumand. Solomon said he wants the land to be part of his legacy, something that will compel passers-by to say aloud and with awe, "Peter Solomon did that."
"In this business, without an ego you're not going to get anywhere," said Solomon.
Solomon says they hope to develop the land within the year and are still in talks with home and hotel developers.
"It's a square mile in the heart of the Coachella Valley," said Solomon. "It really needs to be high-end, a cut above whatever is done in the valley."
Until that happens, it remains a large expanse of desert patched in the middle of other housing developments and retail projects that crop up year after year.
ANNENBERG DEVELOPMENT: Late Walter Annenberg set legal hurdles on use of his land.
March 13, 1908: Born in Milwaukee.
1942: Inherited, with his sisters, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Morning Telegraph (a racing form publication) and Daily Racing Form; eventually purchased The Philadelphia Daily News.
1944: Founded Seventeen Magazine.
1953: Founded TV Guide. Served as president and CEO of Triangle Publications, which included six radio and six TV stations.
1961: Bought 205-acre property in Rancho Mirage.
1964: Completed construction of Sunnylands estate, then the largest single-family residence in Riverside County, where he and his wife, Leonore, lived during winter months. Main residence was near Philadelphia.
1968: Bought 650 acres across the street from Sunnylands for an estimated $1.5 million.
1969-1974: Ambassador to Great Britain, appointed by Nixon.
1970: Sold Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News to Knight Newspapers for $55 million.
1971: Sold radio and television stations.
1975: Hosts Richard Nixon at Sunnylands in Nixon's first social outing after resigning.
1976: Hosts the wedding of Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx at Sunnylands.
1977: Sold his 650-acre adjacent piece of land to the Boroumand and Rashidian families for an undisclosed price.
1979: Offered Sunnylands as a safe haven to the former Shah of Iran, weeks before Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held Americans captive. The Shah sought exile elsewhere.
1988: Sold Triangle Publications, including all publications, to Rupert Murdoch for $3 billion.
1988: Hosted the Reagans at Sunnylands for New Year's.
1991: Bequeathed art collection, valued at $1 billion, to Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
October 1, 2002: died in Pennsylvania.
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