The tangled woodland a short stroll from Helensburgh’s seafront may seem to be little more than another overgrown copse choked with knotted vegetation and pockets of litter.

Untidy and harbouring invasive species – laurel and rhododendron have muscled their way in and taken root – the town’s ancient Castle Woods don’t appear to be anything other than another patch of neglected land on the fringes of a housing estate.

And yet the 5.3 acres, along with another nearby strip of cleared woodland, are at the heart of a bitter battle by locals to wrestle them from the arms of property developers, so they can be reborn as a community asset.

The fight over the ancient semi-natural woodland at Castle Woods and the nearby land at Cumberland Avenue has rumbled on since 2004.

During that time, much to the despair of locals, trees have been felled and litter, fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour has grown.

While the community group argues both sites have suffered from a lack of basic maintenance, the landowners have seen their efforts to build homes thwarted by planning procedures and rules.

Now, however, the fight would appear to be entering its final throes, following the introduction of new legislation aimed at enabling urban groups to grab apparently abandoned and neglected land from its owners.

In the first ever move of its kind, the campaign group leading the charge for the woodland, Helensburgh Community Woodlands Group, has now lodged an application under recently amended Land Reform laws which gives people in towns and cities the opportunity to take over land left dormant by owners such as supermarkets and property developers.

If the move is approved by Scottish Ministers, the woodlands’ landowners will be forced to relinquish their grip, paving the way for a major community effort to transform them into attractive local amenities.

A decision is expected to be made within the next few months, bringing to a head a long-running saga which has seen mounting concern over the condition of the ancient woodland and its neighbouring site.

“It’s not that we are anti-housing,” stresses Andy Donald, Convener of Helensburgh Community Woodlands Group. “But you don’t just cut down protected woodland for housing.

“Besides, there are enough house building areas to suit requirements for Helensburgh for the next 30 to 40 years without building houses on these sites.

“We’re really hoping Scottish Ministers will back our plans to transform these neglected areas into environmental assets for everyone’s benefit, rather than allow them to continue to deteriorate simply because of private land speculation.”

At the heart of the community effort is a vision to transform the two areas from unused and overgrown grounds into local beauty spots, creating natural playgrounds for children, attractive spaces for dog walkers and a haven for wildlife.

Eventually it’s hoped paths could link the sites to the nearby nature reserve at Duchess Wood, perhaps even connecting to the John Muir Way, which begins at the entrance to Helensburgh Pier.

Ambitious plans for Castle Woods include tackling site drainage which the group says has been neglected and caused flooding to nearby properties.

New footpaths, boardwalks, signs and access points would be created, non-native trees and that invasive laurel and rhododendron removed, fences installed and new native trees planted to help return the ancient woodland to how it once was.

The group also plans measures to encourage wildlife to flourish, and a pond to help with water management but which could also support biodiversity.

Bringing the Cumberland Avenue site back to a flourishing woodland, however, will take additional effort. Located within a well-established residential area, it was a thriving larch woodland with its trees covered by a Tree Preservation Order until it was almost completely cleared in mid-2011 amid disputed claims from the landowners that many trees had become dangerous.

That move followed a planning inquiry which threw out their plans to clear the site for the construction of six houses. Meanwhile, the land, with its few remaining trees, is still covered by a Tree Preservation Order and is designated as an Open Space Protection Area.

The community group hopes to take it over to clear rotting debris and invasive Himalayan balsam, and reinstate broadleaved woodland and create a species rich herb layer to encourage native pollinators and other invertebrates, and an open meadow area.

The two woodland sites were in Ministry of Defence ownership until 2004, when they were bought by a local building company. A succession of unsuccessful plans to build homes on both sites have been rejected.

Last year an offer by the community group to pay £100,000 for the Castle Wood site and £45,000 for the Cumberland Avenue land was not accepted by owners Margery Ray Osborne and Thomas Paterson.

A follow up postal ballot of residents in nearby areas showed more than 90% support in favour of HCGW purchasing the two sites however, the landowners dismissed the 43.5% turnout as demonstrating “a general lack of support” for the plans.

In a comment to The Herald’s sister paper, The Helensburgh Advertiser, they suggested the woodland group should instead “concentrate their effort on sites that are readily available within the Helensburgh district.”

The group’s formal application to take over the sites claims there has been “serious and substantial neglect and abandonment of Castle Woods, with overflowing drains, dangerous trees and a lack of action over anti-social behaviour.

It also claims the owners have sought to prevent public access to the land at Cumberland Avenue amid claims it is hazardous.

Mr Donald added: “We would like to open up these areas for community use. There are rough paths through Castle Woods, people used to play there. There are now exposed tree roots where the trees are unstable because of a lack of attention to drainage.

“We want the community to be involved in clearing away the invasive species, the litter and fly-tipping.

“People are more than willing to take part.”