The development partnership that owns most of the Ellwood bluffs has proposed giving up 18 acres of land as permanent open space in exchange for a $5 million to 6 million tax credit from the state.

The land covers the eucalyptus grove around Ellwood’s famous monarch butterfly reserve and up to Santa Barbara Shores County Park near the Sandpiper Golf Course. Under a 2000 law, the Santa Barbara Development Partnership (SBDP) would be eligible for tax credits if they donate the land as open space.

For the developers to get the tax credit, however, the city that receives the land – Goleta – has to approve an application for the California Dept. of Fish and Game Wildlife Conservation Board. Since the board meets only four times each year, the deadline to get the proposal on the agenda for the next meeting is Tuesday, March 5.

The SBDP has pressured the Goleta City Council to approve the application before Tuesday’s deadline because they say the Wildlife Conservation Board’s ability to hand out tax credits is threatened by state budget problems.

The City Council will address the application at its meeting tonight at 6 at the Goleta Community Center. Council members expressed concern last week about rushing a decision on the plan.

“There are still a lot of questions we need to address,” Mayor Margaret Connell said.

Although the deadline for the next meeting is tomorrow, the Wildlife Conservation Board does accept applications year-round and is funded through 2004, so the state’s economic problems could only affect the deal if the governor decided to temporarily suspend the program.

“To some extent, it’s a false crisis,” council member Cynthia Brock said of the rush to get the application filed in time for the next WCB meeting. “This is nothing new. The WCB has been operating under this cloud since it began.”

The county, UCSB, developers and residents have battled over the bluffs north of Coal Oil Point Reserve for 17 years without resolution. When Goleta incorporated in February, much of the land became part of the new city, giving the Goleta City Council final say on any land swapping deals.

The county recently proposed an Ellwood master plan, which would move all proposed development on the Ellwood bluffs up the coast to Santa Barbara Shores County Park, adjacent to Sandpiper Golf Course. The coastline from the Coal Oil Point Reserve to the park would remain as permanent undeveloped open space.

Although the master plan is not mentioned in the tax credit application, one of the developers, Bob Comstock of Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Comstock Homes, said the credits would help ease the financial burden of moving his development to a less valuable site. Already, the struggle to build in the area has cost the company, as the existing development proposal has been stalled for years and is the subject of four lawsuits.

Some city council members worry that the land under consideration might not be developable at all, and that they would be approving a tax credit for developers giving up land that, for legal and environmental reasons, they never would have been able to build on.

Council member Jonny Wallis also expressed some concerns about the city’s responsibility for the land it would inherit, including public access and potential hazardous waste on the property.

“There are some things I’m very worried about and would like to know more about, before we approve the application,” she said. “I’d like to know what exactly we’re buying and what this piece of land will entail. The city will be taking on a great responsibility, so we need to know all the details.”