The town of Cumberland will ask voters in a special election this November to decide whether to spend $3 million to purchase for public use several acres of beach located near the Wildwood neighborhood.

If the referendum is approved, the 23-acre swath could become the first in Cumberland with public ocean access, saving residents from having to drive elsewhere to enjoy the coast.

The land in Cumberland Foreside was owned for generations by the Payson family, and is part of a 100-acre parcel that the family sold this year to a private developer, the Bateman Group, which may build up to 10 homes on the remaining 77 acres.

But the sale to the developer – and potentially to the town – comes with some important strings attached.

A conservation agreement, signed by the former owners in 1997, could severely limit the public’s use of the beach. Whether the agreement, which is enforced by the Chebeague and Cumberland Conservation Land Trust, would hamper or significantly reduce public use will depend on how the town and developers propose to use the land, said Penny Asherman, president of the conservation group’s board of directors.

“Each conservation easement is different,” Asherman said. “The easement on the Payson property … is one that allows limited development and contains considerable amounts of reserved rights of its owners.”

The town has until Dec. 15 to close on the deal.

Although the chance to buy rights for public ocean access is rare in Cumberland, some residents doubt whether the deal, which came together in only a few months, should be approved with such speed and without a firm grasp of whether the narrow stretch of sand is even viable for recreational use.

Retired oceanographer Kenneth Fink, who has helped shape state law on shoreline development rules, said that although a narrow sandy beach is visible during low tide, only a smaller portion of the beach at its northern extreme would likely be usable at high tide.

The shore in places is also covered with beach grass species that are typically resilient to natural forces but crumple and die when trod upon by humans.

“The challenge is going to be arriving at the right balance among recreational needs, nurturing the existing ecosystem, and preservation,” said Fink.

Another sore point is the cost.

The $3 million price for 23 acres is half of the $6 million that the Bateman Group paid for the 100 acres, noted Tom Hyndman, who lives in the Wildwood development nearby.

“Should we be paying significantly more for significantly less … property?” Hyndman asked.

The July 28 vote by the Town Council was 6-0, with Michael Edes abstaining, in favor of pursuing the deal.

Before the vote Nov. 4, residents will have a chance to voice their opinion at a public hearing, probably in September.