For decades now, Chesterfield residents and officials have recognized that the health of Spofford Lake is of vital importance to their futures. Not only is the 732-acre lake a recreational gem, it adds tremendous financial value to the town. As a destination, it draws visitors who rent housing, spend money and pay fees in town. Moreover, property values around the lake are greatly inflated from elsewhere in the area, tamping down tax rates.

But people haven’t always been kind to the lake. Businesses that have sprouted in the area have fed pollutants into the water and surrounding soil. Many, if not most, of the lakeside homes, have historically dumped their sewage straight into the lake. And then there’s recreation. Oil and other fluids from boats, sunscreen from swimmers and, sometimes, invasive species tagging along in bilge or stuck to hulls have been introduced as well.

Lastly, there are other pollutants that seep into groundwater, then the lake, from surrounding homes; fluids washed from driveways; chemicals used on lawns, gardens or in home maintenance, etc.

Over the past decade, the lake’s water quality has been found to have low dissolved oxygen levels, which can threaten aquatic life. It’s tested high for E.coli bacteria at times. Residents have reported increasing sediment and weeds spreading on the lake’s bottom, and intensifying levels of stormwater runoff.

All of that concern helps inform the multi-year effort to enact new zoning regulations near the lake, which failed last week at the polls. The so-called “steep slope” district proposed by the Chesterfield Planning Board would have prohibited development — other than building a new driveway, expanding an existing structure and some forestry activities — on any slope of more than 15 degrees. On slopes of more than 20 degrees, it would be more restrictive still.

Planning board member John Koopman, one of the plan’s advocates, said it would limit construction projects in the Spofford Lake watershed that cause soil erosion to seep into the lake and help invasive species grow. “It’s a bowl,” Koopman told The Sentinel’s Caleb Symons. “Everything that goes down that hill goes right into the lake.”

The idea seems sound, but it didn’t arise in a vacuum. It seems pretty apparent the zone was intended to prevent the development of housing on what is now Pine Grove Springs Golf Course. That facility sits on hilly slopes a few hundred yards from the lake’s western shoreline. Supporters of the zoning change say the site’s owner is in debt and needs to sell, perhaps to a developer.

That owner, Bob Maibusch, says he won’t sell the land as anything but a golf course. He also contends the zone would be counter-productive, limiting responsible development within its boundaries. Advocates scoff at that.

We don’t know what the environmental effects would truly be. Perhaps housing would be a better environmental choice than a golf course, which presumably treats its greens and fairways, and which is constantly mowing and trimming with mechanical equipment that could leak oil or gas. Maybe not.

Ultimately, the issue is one of property. Those with homes around the lake may favor the zoning change because it would protect the lake and, thus, their investments. Others may see it as an infringement on property rights that would apply not only to the golf course (to attempt to restrict only that site would be blatant spot zoning, which is illegal).

In any event, voters killed the zoning change at the ballot box March 9, by a convincing margin: 608-242. That was followed by proponents saying they plan to revise the measure and reintroduce it next year. One of the takeaways at the polls was that many voters felt they hadn’t heard enough about the plan and wanted a delay. Though Koopman said the planning board had been working on it for three years and held public meetings, he also noted a willingness to tweak the ordinance.

And that may be the best outcome. Now, people in town are aware of the issue. And proponents of the plan know better what the sticking points are. Hopefully, come next town meeting day, a new proposal will be on the ballot that more residents feel they can support while still protecting the lake.