A historic Jane Austen-related pond is turning into a “muddy swamp,” local residents have complained.
Kings Pond is on the edge of the market town of Alton in Hampshire, near Chawton, where the novelist lived from 1809 to 1817.
Austen regularly visited the town to shop, mail letters, do banking and take the stagecoach into London from the High Street.
However, despite having been a scene of rural tranquility for more than 200 years, residents are up in arms over proposals by local authorities to seal it off from the chalk stream it feeds in a move which they say will improve biodiversity, water quality and will remove the need for costly dredging.
Annoyed locals, however, condemned it as “municipal vandalism”, while the council accused residents of indulging in “crazy” conspiracy theories.
The debate has become so heated that Suzie Burns, a Lib Dem councilor who is spearheading the £250,000 plan, recently said the vitriol directed at her and other elected officials could lead to the “end of democracy” in the city.
Kings Pond – created in the 1700s – is a popular attraction for families in the area, with populations of wildlife including kingfishers, ducks and geese.
But a draft management plan released by the city council earlier this autumn revealed plans to separate the pond from the River Wey which feeds it.
As part of the public consultation, residents are asked whether they would be happy for the local authority to undertake a feasibility study to see if the pond could be turned into a wet meadow instead.
A local newspaper reported that residents said the project would “rip out the heart” of the town and turn the pond into a “stinking swamp” or “muddy swamp,” accusing councilors of simply trying to save money on dredging.
Save Kings Pond group co-leader David Dodd lives in an apartment overlooking the water.
The 76-year-old said: ‘I see that if they took the pond offline, it would just be nine acres of mud marsh and all the wildlife would be lost.
“It’s been here for 200 years and they want to get rid of it because it needs dredging every 30 years and they don’t have the money. It’s a community staple.”
Cllr Burns – the chairman of the council’s open spaces committee – said there was a “witch hunt” against her and the level of abuse she has received could discourage people from entering politics.
In a letter to the local newspaper she wrote: “I am concerned about the impact that the general anti-conciliar rhetoric and vitriol has shown [in the paper] and on social media it will have on local democracy.
“This could end up being the end of ‘democracy’ in the city as we know it.”
In a statement, Alton City Council accused some activists of indulging in “crazy” conspiracy theories, including that the site was allegedly being sold to developers or was part of a deal to allow water companies to dump wastewater. into the river.
“Those kinds of rumors would be hilarious were it not for the fact that the future of Kings Pond is an incredibly serious matter and these myths distract people from engaging in the consultation process,” he said.
“Doing nothing is not an option on the consultation. How come? Because the reality is that environmental factors around the pond and human interventions mean the problem is growing.
“If the public opposes any measure to alter the present site, whether it be to remove it from the line or silting it up, the pond will eventually become so silted up that the ‘muddy bog’ which the council has been accused of wanting to create , it will happen organically.
“Dredging may be the only viable way to clear the pond, but for the sake of future generations of residents, wildlife and the local environment, isn’t it justifiable to explore it?”
The public consultation closed at the end of last month.