BLUFFTON — When General Sherman’s troops burned down the Beaufort County Courthouse, from the ashes arose ghosts. Among them are roughly 1.3 miles of roads with no clear owner.
Today, those passages are known around town as “ghost roads.” Ansley Hester Manuel does not like the term. She feels a more accurate name would be orphan roads, due to the fact that families like hers’ have been fostering these throughfares, some for a century or more.
Because she considers the two title-less roads that butt up against her property an important buffer, Manuel has refused to sign a quitclaim the town sent back in 2019.
But town officials say they need to legally acquire the roads in order to complete a sewer extension project, which is vital to protecting the health of the May River.
Including Manual, approximately 20 residents have refused to surrender any claims they believe they may have over the roads. Officials are going to send them each one final notice. If they still refuse, town council has voted 4-1 in favor of filing legal paperwork claiming ownership of the roads.
If residents challenge the claim, it will go to trial. If a judge rules in favor of the homeowners, the town will pursue eminent domain.
Manuel lives on Heyward Cove. The property, which her grandparents purchased back in the 1960s, touches two ghost roads — Pritchard Street and Cove Road.
Pritchard is a dirt road right across from town hall, sparsely lined with old homes. Like Manuel, most of the people who live down this part of Pritchard arrived in Bluffton long before the population boom.
From 1999 to 2005, the town ballooned from a single square mile to over 50 square miles, due to large parcels of soon-to-be developed land annexing in. Since then, the population has grown from 3,300 people to more than 32,000.
Although Pritchard Street is not heavily trafficked, Manuel regularly sees people driving or walking by. Some go to St. John’s Baptist Church, a weathered white building significantly smaller than most of the homes on the street. It has a tiled baptismal pool in back, large enough to submerge a grown man.
Others take the road down to Pritchard Park, which has three benches overlooking the May River. Within the last year, the town laid down pavers, creating a path leading visitors to the pocket park.
Manuel and her neighbors have nicknamed it Pot Park because outsiders regularly come to take in the view while getting stoned.
When Manuel was a kid, she could stand on the spot where the park now is, look out over the river and see trees.
Today, when she looks across the river, she sees Palmetto Bluff, one of the first and largest planned unit developments to annex into Bluffton. The development is often used as an event venue. It’s where Justin and Hailey Bieber tied the knot, back in 2019.
When the breeze is blowing in the right direction, the sound of music and celebratory voices are carried across the river. But the real noise pollution, Manuel explained, comes from the once-quiet town. She and her neighbors feel like Old Town Bluffton has been reduced to an entertainment venue.
The small strip of land that runs alongside Manuel’s property, Cove Road, is much different than Pritchard Street. It dead ends into a patch of vegetation, including fully matured trees, before leading into the cove.
The first portion of Cove Road is free of vegetation due to the fact that Manuel and her family have been parking their cars there since the 1960s. Manuel also mulches the road with pine straw and yard debris to keep the growth down.
Although the road falls outside her property line and she has never paid taxes on it, she has never seen anyone, apart from her family, use it.
She sees the ghost roads as buffers, shielding her and her neighbors from what she refers to as the Disneying-up of Bluffton.
“You can’t regulate eccentric. When you try and regulate and overmarket that, it loses its eccentricity,” she explained.
Although town officials assured her they only want the roads for utility access, she fears that if she signs over her rights, there is no telling what future town councils might do. They could pave the roads, encouraging visitors to come to her yard, or they could build another pocket park.
The other side of the cove
Catherine Harrison lives on the other side of Heyward Cove.
Her family has owned property in Bluffton for nearly a century. Her father was childhood friends with Thomas G. Heyward, for whom the bridge spanning the cove was named. Both families used Bluffton as a summer retreat, drawn to the cool breezes coming off the May.
The river has been a constant presence in Harrison’s life. She said, if she is holding up sewer conversion, she would gladly sign a utility easement. But she is not willing to sign over her rights to the ghost road that touches her property. Like Manuel, she is afraid of what future town councils might do to change the road.
The ghost road in question is Water Street, which touches the properties of both Harrison and Joanie Heyward, Thomas G. Heyward’s widow. Part of Water belongs to the town and is paved. But there is a small unpaved section at the entrance to Harrison’s home, which has no clear right of way. It dead ends into Harrison’s property and, beyond that, the cove.
“The road is a source of peace and quiet for me. And for Catherine, it’s a source of entry into her home,” said Joanie Heyward.
People often drive down Water and, when they see it’s a dead end, turn around. In the process, some have crashed into Harrison’s brick fence, which she has had to repair several times.
She has put up “no trespassing” and “dead end” signs.
She has also filled potholes. While the town has advised her on the proper materials to use, the government did not share in the cost.
Harrison looks back fondly on Bluffton before the development boom. She remembers a town in which fences were left waist high, so neighbors could admire each other’s gardens, or stop to chat.
As the town grew, one of her neighbors had to raise the fence, which borders Wright Family Park. Harrison said, during the day, there was the constant sound of screaming children and, at night, the park was overtaken by people who used it as a drinking spot. They would get rowdy and throw trash into her neighbor’s yard.
“What you’re seeing now, and have been over the last decade, is a big disconnect between the town and the residents, and what they want,” Harrison said.
By residents, she means the people who called Bluffton home long before all the growth began.
Protecting the town’s most treasured resources
But the members of town council are also longtime Blufftonians. Council member Bridgette Frazier can trace her family’s roots in Bluffton back to the slave trade.
She feels strongly that extending sewer will help in the fight to save the May. In 2009, the Department of Health and Environmental Control shut down a portion of the river to shellfish harvesting due to potentially harmful levels of fecal coliform bacteria.
In order to help pinpoint the source of the contaminate, town staff regularly conduct squish and sniff tests. They go out after heavy rainfall, squish the ground and sniff for human waste, which they suspect is leaching out of septic systems and being washed into the river by stormwater runoff.
“It’s not fun work. Everything you think it is, it’s that gross and more,” said Kimberly Washok-Jones, director of projects and watershed resilience.
Based in part on data from Washok-Jones’ team, the May River Watershed Action Plan Advisory Committee has recommended that all septic systems throughout the watershed be eliminated. In 2017, the town adopted the Sewer Connection and Extension Policy.
The policy prioritized a 500-foot buffer along the May River and its coves. The top priority was to get every home inside the buffer onto sanitary sewer as soon as possible. The project is funded by both stormwater management fees and federal grants.
The town is not charging residents anything to connect to sewer.
The project was broken up into six phases. Work has already been completed on phase one. Phases two and three are under contract and construction is set to begin later this year.
But phases four through six are stalled due to the dispute over the ghost roads.
To move ahead, Frazier voted in favor of laying claim to the ghost roads. As a member of the Gullah Geechee community, she pointed out that a lot of Gullah fisherman, shrimpers and oyster pickers depend on the river for their livelihood.
If the resource were lost, she said, it would be devastating for the local Gullah Geechee population.
Council member Fred Hamilton is also a lifelong Blufftonian. He was the one dissenting vote.
“I’m not in agreement with taking something that’s not mine,” he said.
In Bluttton’s Old Town Masterplan, which was drafted in 2006 with input from residents, it was recommended that the town acquire these roads, to avoid problems down the line.
The masterplan also singled out the eccentric, friendly nature of the community and the health of the May River as the town’s most treasured resources.
Today, those two resources appear to be at odds, as longtime residents fight to protect what they see as the last remaining pocket where old town charm still reigns, while town officials argue those residents are putting the health of the May River in jeopardy.