A historic pond linked to Jane Austen is being turned into a "muddy swamp", local residents have complained.
Kings Pond lies at the edge of the Hampshire market town of Alton, near to Chawton, where the novelist lived from 1809 until 1817.
Austen would regularly visit the town to shop, post letters, do her banking and catch the stage coach to London from its High Street.
However, despite being a scene of rural tranquility for more than 200 years, residents are up in arms over local authority proposals to cut it off from the chalk stream which it feeds in a move it says will improve biodiversity, water quality and remove the need for costly dredging.
Irked locals, however, have condemned it as “municipal vandalism”, while the council has accused residents of indulging in “bonkers” conspiracy theories.
Debate has become so heated that Suzie Burns, a Lib Dem councillor, who is spearheading the £250,000 plan, recently claimed the vitriol directed at her and other elected officials may lead to the “end of democracy” in the town.
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 published by the town council earlier this autumn revealed plans to separate the pond from the River Wey which feeds into it.
As part of the public consultation, residents are being 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 paper reported that residents have claimed the project will “rip the heart out” of the town and turn the pond into a “smelly bog” or “muddy swamp”, accusing councillors of simply trying to save money on dredging.
The co-leader of the Save Kings Pond group, David Dodd, lives in a flat overlooking the water.
The 76-year-old said: "I can see if they did take the pond offline, it would just be nine acres of muddy swamp, and all the wildlife there 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 staple of the community."
Cllr Burns - the chairman of the council's Open Spaces committee - has claimed there is a “witch hunt” against her, and the level of abuse she has received could put people off going into politics.
In a letter to the local paper she wrote: "I am concerned about the impact the general anti-council rhetoric and vitriol demonstrated [in the paper] and on social media will have on local democracy.
"This may well end up being the end of 'democracy" in the town as we know it."
In a statement, Alton Town Council accused some campaigners of indulging in “bonkers” conspiracy theories including that the site would be sold to developers or that it was part of a deal to let water companies dump sewage in the river.
“These types of rumours would be funny if it were not for the fact that the future of Kings Pond is an incredibly serious matter and these myths are detracting people from engaging with the consultation process," it said.
“To do nothing is not an option on the consultation. Why? Because the reality is the environmental factors around the pond and human interventions mean the problem is an increasing one.
“If the public are opposed to any measures to alter the current site, whether that is to take it off line or de-silt it, the pond will eventually silt up to such a degree that the 'muddy swamp' which the council have been accused of wanting to create, will happen organically.
“It may be that dredging is the only viable way to desilt the pond but for the sake of future generations of residents, wildlife and for the local environment, doesn’t it warrant exploring?"
The public consultation closed at the end of last month.