The Audubon Naturalist Society, a group dedicated to the conservation of "wildlife, forests and other plant communities," had decided to sell 7.9 acres of its wooded headquarters in Chevy Chase to developers.

The decision has stirred up a bitter controversy among its members and prompted angry letters from a number of former officials of the society as well as the man who was instrumental in acquiring the property for the organization in 1968.

The society, a local organization with almost 4,000 members that has no connection with the National Audubon Society, was willed the 40-acre Woodend estate by Mrs. Chester Wells, the wealthy widow of a U.S. naval officer. Now according to Audubon president Charles D. Cremeans the group cannot afford the upkeep and the board of directors has given approval in principle to sell off part of the estate.

A professional site planner has drawn up plans for development, which would provide lots for 27 houses, a single road entrance off Jones Mill Road, and a corridor separating the lot from Rock Creek Park. Cremeans says he expects the land to fetch between half and three-quarters of a million dollars.

No specific developer has been chosen, he says, and the board of directors has not yet set a date for the sale. But Elting Arnold, a director of the society and chairman of its finance committee who voted for the sale, said yesterday that "if it's going to be done, there's no sense letting it hang there."

Irston R. Barnes, a past president of the society, wrote Cremeans a letter in December telling him that selling the property would be to "break faith with Mrs. Wells and to repudiate the assurance which the society gave through me that we would retain, use and maintain the property."

Barnes wrote that if the society had not authorized him to give these assurances, "Mrs. Wells would certainly have left the property elsewhere." Cremeans replied that the board regretted the necessity for the sale, but that because "no written committment had been made" and because "times have changed," the society would come closer to fulfilling Mrs. Wells' plans if they had the money instead.

Charles D. Williams, executive director of Woodend, says that $30,000 is spent each year to operate and maintain the property. He said the board made the decision to approve the sale with some hesitation but "virtual unanimity." The sale would allow the society to keep up maintenance, and to keep up its educational programs as well.

One of the strongest critics of the plan is Shirley A. Briggs, executive director of the Rachel Carson Council, a group that researches pesticides and has its headquarters at Woodend, and an honorary vice president of the society. "The board of directors is intent on pressuring this property sale," she said. "One of the last things that [Mrs. Wells] ever wanted to happen to it was for it to get into the hands of developers. I heard her expound on it several times."

Briggs complains that the decision to sell was made by the board of directors without consulting the general membership. But Cremeans maintains a referendum is not provided for in the bylaws of the society, and that "this is such a complicated question, people have to have spent many hours studying the evidence."

According to Cremeans, the board regarded the sale as a "very serious matter with moral questions and questions of public responsibility. We have had debate, discussion, professional ecologists and ornithologists come in and we had nine long meetings last fall. We came to the conclusion that the area was not ecologically unique."

He said that the board had been told by an official at the Agricultural Research Station in Beltsville who has studied the effect of habitat on birds that the bird population would not change, even if the area was left undeveloped for another hundred years.

But those with other opinions have not kept silent. F. R. Fosberg, a longtime member of the society who is an environmentalist and former botanist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote Cremeans that the property the board wants to sell "is the best piece of wild-life habitat of the Woodend property."