SCOTLAND’S first national park spans 720 square miles of rolling lowlands, jagged peaks, scenic woodlands and rural villages. Millions of people visit every year, while more than 15,000 live there permanently.

Now, just 44 acres of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is at the centre of one of the country’s most controversial planning bids.

Proposals for a £30 million hotel and leisure development at lochside land in Balloch, home of the park authority’s headquarters, split public opinion when they first emerged last year.

Iconic Leisure Developments, the company behind Yorkshire attraction Flamingo Land, revealed it aimed to create a new asset on the “bonnie banks” after winning preferred bidder status from Scottish Enterprise, the publicly-owned economic development agency selling the land.

Earmarked for development in local plans, the Balloch site borders the loch and the River Leven as well as a housing development and sits alongside Loch Lomond Shores, home to shops and an aquarium run by leisure giant Merlin.

Blueprints have now been submitted to the national park in what constitutes the first stage in a lengthy process which could, depending on who you ask, deliver an economic shot in the arm or a crippling blow for established businesses and local people.

At the time of writing, 52 comments expressing opposition have been submitted to the park authority, compared with only two intimations of support. Those against the project cite congestion, litter, noise and the environmental impact as reasons for refusal.

According to Bruce Biddulph, the 54-year-old hotel night porter whose online petition against the bid has generated more than 18,000 signatures from home and abroad, these are valid concerns.

Another, he says, is the potential loss of green space in Drumkinnon Woods, which is a focus of efforts to prevent the Flamingo Land plan from fledging. A protest is planned there on Tuesday and Biddulph, a member of the Friends of Drumkinnon Woods group, said it is a haven at times when Balloch is “frighteningly busy”.

“It’s another world in there”, he said. “It’s the kind of place people take to their hearts. There’s a carpet of bluebells, and you listen to the birds sing and realise this shouldn’t be built on.”

On the need to improve tourist facilities and boost local trade, he was emphatic. “Balloch’s attraction is that it has no attraction,” Biddulph said. “People don’t come here for one thing, they come here for the sum total and that’s exactly what they are looking for.

“I know all the arguments against refusal and I’m sick of hearing them. Some of the businesses here, they get by. You add a big player like that and they own 44 acres of land in Balloch and control access to the riverbed and the loch, what happens to the rest of the businesses that have been here for years, sometimes decades?

“Maybe I’m an old man who lives in a rose-tinted past and wishes nothing changed. But I’m also old enough to understand that change isn’t always good.”

ANDY Miller, director of sales for Iconic Leisure Developments, disagrees. Like Biddulph, he was raised in the area – his minister father carried out weddings, christenings and funerals at the same church for 37 years – and feels a strong connection to it.

But Miller, who previously worked for luxury hotel Cameron House, believes little of what is currently on the land deserves to be preserved. “Loch Lomond is a stunning landscape,” he says, “but that piece of ground is not an area we can be proud of. There are sofas lying discarded, there’s oil drums. There was an attack on a girl there not long ago.

“There are areas of Drumkinnon Woods where it’s beautiful, but a crude oil pipeline runs below it.

“I read the comments on the petition and I just struggle with how you can comment on something when you don’t know anything about it, you have not taken the time to read the documents.

“A lot of them still think it’s going to be exactly like Flamingo Land in Yorkshire – it was never going to be a theme park from day one, at least know what you are objecting about. Look at it with an open mind.”

According to Miller, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on the bid so far. A decision on outline planning permission is months off and it may be 2020 before the scheme takes shape, if at all.

Local councillor Sally Page says there is “enormous concern” in her ward and has cautioned that the decision should be taken “in the best interests of the people of Balloch ... not influenced by external agendas”.

In contrast, fellow Lomond ward councillor Jonathan McColl says he has come round to the plan, and insists, despite speculation by opponents, that this is not a question of added income from rates. “I can’t imagine those will be massive,” he said. “It’s more about other benefits to the local economy.”

However, the West Dunbartonshire Council leader conceded there are “very mixed views out there”. “People are passionate about it,” he said. “It’s good to see the community caring about something as much as this. The worst thing in a community is apathy.”

One such local is Fiona McEachern, who stands to benefit through a new purpose-built production facility and taproom for her Loch Lomond Brewery. Currently based one mile away in Alexandria, McEachern made a separate approach about buying some of the land before holding discussions with Iconic Leisure.

She says approval would mean quadrupling her workforce and serving growing markets at home and abroad.

A crowdfunder is on the go to pay for it. “It seems like such a lost opportunity not to use that area,” she says. “We’re bursting at the seams. We’re very keen to keep our brewery in the Loch Lomond area – it just wouldn’t make sense to move away. We want the locals to embrace this.”

Balloch and Haldane Community Council, which covers an area that is home to 3500 people, has not yet taken a position on the matter. “We would look favourably to £30m investment in the village,” says chairman Murdoch Cameron, “but there are one or two points we want to discuss.

“I don’t see how a person in New York or New Zealand or outwith the community can comment. We are concerned with the thoughts of the community, who will be the ones affected by this.”