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Wedding & Event Venue Near Bluffton, SC.

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Your Magic Moment Awaits

Your wedding day. Without a doubt, it's one of the most significant events you will ever experience - when you and the love of your life officially seal the deal and get married. On this day, your friends and family will gather to celebrate the next step in your life. Photographers will be running around snapping photos, catering plates delicious food for guests to enjoy, and the DJ sets the mood for a night of fun and libation. You've worked extra hard to make everything look perfect and run smoothly. You have examined every moving part down to the tiniest detail. At the center of all your effort is your wedding venue in Bluffton, SC.

Your event space can mean the difference between an unforgettable event and an average occasion. Capturing your uniqueness as a couple is paramount to a memorable wedding. But, without the right venue location and staff, your unforgettable event can turn into a painfully average occasion. Fortunately, at Abney Hall, you won't ever have to worry about dingy reception spaces and crummy chow halls.

Constructed in Bluffton, SC, in 1962, Abney Hall is 15,000 square feet and sits on 500 acres of land, making it a large wedding venue unlike any other. Abney Hall was originally the home of Mrs. Josephine Abney, a Bluffton native who was a lifelong philanthropist. Mrs. Abney devoted much of her time and effort towards supporting charities, educational institutions, hospitals, and other noble efforts. Today, Abney Hall stands tall as a symbol of love, both in our community and for the couples who choose to get married here.

Abney Hall is an exclusive event experience unlike any other, surrounded by verdant forests and sparkling ponds. Our venue is a natural fit for several occasions, including:

Special Event Space Bluffton, SC


 Event Venue Bluffton, SC

Bridal Showers

 Event Space Bluffton, SC

Bridal Portraits

 Rehearsal Dinner Venue Bluffton, SC

Rehearsal Dinners

 Bridal Shower Venue Bluffton, SC

Corporate Events

 Business Event Space Bluffton, SC

Much More!

 Wedding Space Bluffton, SC

The Top Wedding Venue in Bluffton, SC

The beginning of your life starts at Abney Hall. With our team by your side, we can create the fairy tale wedding you have dreamed about since childhood. Whether you have 100 guests or 1,000, our waterfront ceremony locations and French-inspired courtyard are perfect for your big day. Celebrate in luxurious style surrounded by shady magnolia trees, a private forest, large ponds, and the beauty of Mother Nature. While our venue location and aesthetic have been praised far and wide, so too have the practical aspects of Abney Hall. Looking for a relaxing, comfortable spot for your bridal party to get ready in? We offer an entire floor in the Abney Hall residence to get the bridal party ready. Want to make your groomsman feel extra-special too? We've got a private, plush house just feet from a sparkling pond that is a proper hangout spot for the guys in your group.

To make life easier on you, we also offer Abney Hall as your go-to spot for rehearsal dinners. Why book an expensive restaurant or travel to another location when unmatched beauty and convenience are right at your fingertips? Abney Hall is just the place for that very important dinner the night before your big day. We are also happy to host your bridal shower at Abney Hall. Our venue makes for one of Bluffton's most unique bridal shower settings, where your family and friends can gather to give gifts and be merry before you walk down the aisle.

With such a large, magnificent house and a vast property, Abney Hall also makes for an unforgettable location for your bridal portraits and other wedding-related photography needs. Don't take our word for it - book a tour and see for yourself why so many new brides and grooms choose Abney Hall as their wedding venue in Bluffton.

 Wedding Venue Bluffton, SC

What Sets Abney Hall Apart from Other Wedding Venues in Bluffton?

You've already found the person you want to spend the rest of your life beside. The next step? Finding the perfect wedding venue for your ceremony, reception, and celebration of your lifelong commitment to one another. Remember, the backdrop for photos, dancing, eating, and all other activities will be at your wedding venue. That's why we work so hard to set Abney Hall apart from our competitors - so you and your guests can focus on love and living your new life while we work with your vendors and photographers to make your magic night a reality.

Here are just a few reasons why guests choose Abney Hall as their wedding venue in Bluffton, SC, along with some helpful tips from our experienced wedding venue staff:

Venue Size

Choosing the appropriate-sied venue for your desired guest count is a critical decision. A venue's capacity affects the number of people you need to consider having at your ceremony and reception. As you're first starting out, we recommend having a guest count in mind as you're searching for the right venue. Try to stick with that number. You may fall in love with a particular venue, but if its max capacity can't accommodate your guest count, it may be time to cross them off your list.

 Corporate Conference Hall Bluffton, SC
Abney Hall Pro Tip

Abney Hall Pro Tip:

Keep in mind that this is your big day. You shouldn't feel obligated to invite the college roommate you shared a dorm with for one semester. At the end of the day, your wedding venue should be one that can accommodate those closest to you. Abney Hall is equipped for both small and large weddings, consisting of 500 acres of forest, ponds, and lush natural beauty. Whether you want an intimate wedding with only your best friends or a grand ceremony with hundreds of people, we have the right amount of room to make you comfortable.

Location and Nearby Lodging

On your big day, you're likely to have friends and family traveling in from other parts of the state or country. These folks will need a place to stay during and even after your wedding. Accessibility and ease are important factors when it comes to choosing your wedding venue for both you and your guests.

Located in Bluffton, SC, Abney Hall is situated in a memorable, natural setting, giving your wedding a private vibe in the midst of Mother Nature. While we pride ourselves on having a secluded wedding event space, our venue is within an easy driving distance of hotels and vacation rentals.

Abney Hall Pro Tip

Abney Hall Pro Tip:

When you contact us for a tour, make sure to speak with our experienced venue manager about nearby hotels and shuttle service options. We understand that your guest's comfort and convenience are important, and we're happy to work with you to figure out the best way to get your guests to Abney Hall.

Venue Staff

At Abney Hall, our staff has earned its reputation as one of the industry's most friendly, accessible teams. We will provide you with a purpose-minded point of contact that can help answer questions relating to timelines, preferred vendors, and every aspect of your wedding. When you tour our wedding venue in Bluffton, SC, for the first time, we want you to feel like you have all the information you need to make an informed purchasing decision.

We would be happy to go over:
  • Venue Pricing
  • Ceremony Specifics
  • Reception Specifics
  • Catering Possibilities
  • Decorating Possibilities
  • Entertainment Options
  • Photography and Photo Opportunities
  • Venue Amenities
  • Bridal Party Needs
  • Groomsman Needs

At Abney Hall, our goal is to be your first resource when it comes to setting up and coordinating the details of your wedding day.


When it comes to your wedding's decor, you probably already have a few ideas in mind. We love it when our brides and grooms have a vision in mind because one of our greatest joys is turning that vision into a reality. At Abney Hall, our team is available to help you and your decorator fit, accent, and accommodate your fairy-tale wedding - whatever that may be.

Are you looking to dress up your wedding with decorations galore? Just want to add a few accents that tie into your preferred color palette? Abney Hall is versatile and ready to help however we are able.

 Reception Hall Bluffton, SC

Abney Hall Pro Tip:

If you're thinking about bringing in your own greenery, lighting, floral pieces, and more, we recommend discussing your vision with us on your initial tour of our event space. That way, we can get a head start on making your big day exactly how you envision it.

Photo Opportunities

10 years from now, when you and your spouse are celebrating your anniversary, you will pull out photographs from your wedding and will reminisce about the unforgettable time you spent at Abney Hall. Your wedding photos will be with you forever, and as such, we work closely with you and your photographer to suggest extra-special photo op spots that you can only find on Abney Hall grounds.

From the grand staircase and French-inspired courtyard to our manicured gardens and lovely pond, there is no shortage of photo-op locations for your photographer to choose from. As one of the most popular wedding venues in Bluffton, SC, we have worked with dozens of photographers over the years.

Our experience has allowed us to cultivate a list of preferred photographers - all of whom have the talent to take your pictures to the next level in a setting they're familiar with. We encourage you to check out our gallery to get a sense of the scope of our wedding venue and gain inspiration from other happy couples.


Abney Hall Pro Tip

The gallery on our website is extensive but be sure to check out our Facebook and Instagram pages as well. We keep our social pages updated with recent wedding photographs, giving you an incredible resource that you can use for your own photography purposes.

Special Event Space Bluffton, SC

The Premier Corporate Event Venue in Bluffton, SC

Abney Hall is known across the United States for our stunning weddings, but we also play host to some of the largest corporate events in South Carolina. Why choose a bland, lifeless meeting space when you can enjoy the beauty of Mother Nature coupled with a professional atmosphere? If you have an important team-building event or corporate conference that you have to coordinate, look no further than Abney Hall.

The epitome of class and style, our corporate event space is large, lavish, and chock-full of onsite amenities for you and your co-workers to enjoy. If your team needs a morale boost, don't bring them to the local Olive Garden for a cheap lunch. Treat them to a refreshing experience in our main dining room, where we can work with you to incorporate your catering options with the goals of your event.

When the hard work is done, and your team needs a breather, what better way to relax than with a quick dip in our pool? To burn off a little steam, head over to our brand-new tennis court - the perfect place to get some exercise in an ultra-private setting while you enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Don't forget to bring your fishing poles for a couple of hours of fishing. There's even an opportunity to go hunting if you wish.

 Event Venue Bluffton, SC

Elegance at Its Finest - Only
a Phone Call Away

If you're ready to learn more about Abney Hall as your wedding venue, don't hesitate to reach out. We would love to hear more about your plans, your vision, and your needs. We know that planning a wedding isn't easy. It takes time, attention to detail, and a whole lot of patience. Our goal is to help provide you with all the info you need to learn more about our venue. Once you decide on a date, we'll work closely with you and your vendors to craft a wedding experience that you will treasure for the rest of your life.

Our available dates for your big day are going quick, especially during peak seasons like spring and fall. We look forward to hearing from you soon!

Contact us today for a FREE initial consultation
 Event Space Bluffton, SC

Latest News in Bluffton, SC

South Carolina's 10 Best Seafood Spots, According to Our Readers

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in South Carolina, find the nearest seafood dive and tuck into a platter of fried shrimp—preferab...

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in South Carolina, find the nearest seafood dive and tuck into a platter of fried shrimp—preferably one served with an ice-cold beer and an unobstructed view of the water. While you can take to Google or a guidebook to determine where to go for steamed oysters or shrimp and grits in the Lowcountry, we decided to consult the folks who care about good Southern seafood as much as we do: Our readers. Here are the 10 best seafood spots in South Carolina, as voted by Southern Living readers.

When you’ve been around for 75 years, you’re bound to be doing something right. At this beloved institution in the fishing village of Murrells Inlet, try not to load up on the hot hushpuppies they bring to the table on arrival, though it's awfully tempting. There's still so much more to savor, like the hand-peeled, cold-boiled shrimp pulled from the waters of nearby McClellanville or the thin and crispy onion rings—Lee’s is as famous for those as it is for the seafood.

Order: The Shrimp Salad ($26.95), made with boiled fantail shrimp and Duke's mayo, is another house specialty.

4460 US-17 Business, Murrells Inlet, SC 29576,

It doesn’t get much fresher than this Hilton Head Island mainstay, where 90% of the seafood served comes directly from the surrounding waters. Because of its enviable position on the edge of Port Royal Sound, guests can watch a local fishing fleet (one of only two on the island) unload the day’s loot, which could include anything from white shrimp to soft shell crab.

Order: From November through March, opt for the steamed local cluster oysters in the shell ($12 for a half bucket): The restaurant farms and harvests them.

1 Hudson Road, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina 29926,

Should you find yourself in the Holy City, make the worthwhile dirt-road detour to this family-owned restaurant that’s been a rambling fixture along Folly Creek since 1946. With its graffitied walls and worn-in wood floors, it doesn’t beg for attention, and it doesn’t need to. Deemed an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2006, the Lowcountry seafood joint shovels fresh-steamed oysters onto trays September through May and dishes fried shrimp and hush puppies year-round. It’s all delicious—and it's made even more so if you snag a seat on the waterside deck.

Order: The shrimp (served boiled or fried) and fried oyster platter is served with the seafood-dive-side-dish trifecta: French fries, hush puppies, and coleslaw.

1870 Bowens Island Road, Charleston, SC 29412,

Situated on the main drag of the freewheeling beach town just 12 miles from buttoned-up Charleston, The Crab Shack is as family-friendly and flip-flop casual as its surrounds. Start with the the she-crab soup, but save room: The value seafood baskets—which you can order with flounder, shrimp, or scallops (or a combination of all three)—are generously portioned.

Order: The marquee offering, The Charleston Steamed Seafood Bucket, includes two snow crab clusters, large domestic shrimp, and steamed oysters (market price).

26 Center Street, Folly Beach, SC 29439;

Housed in a reimagined garage on Upper King Street, the Brooks Reitz-helmed restaurant turns 10 in 2024, but it’s been a neighborhood favorite from the start, thanks to a menu of mouth-watering fried chicken, expectedly fresh oysters, and surprisingly crave-able salads. Add to the clever mix soft-serve ice cream and buckets of Miller High Life ponies, and you’ve found yourself one of the best meals in this restaurant-proud town.

Order: Even the bivalve-averse crowd may develop a taste for oysters after sampling Leon's char-grilled take, which swim in a melty swirl of lemon and butter and are topped with a generous sprinkle of parmesan. The 'old-school' scalloped potatoes are also not to be missed.

698 King St, Charleston, SC 29403,

Don’t let summertime’s line-out-the-door scare you off. This treasured counter-service spot with just 40 seats is an area favorite thanks to its wide array of seafood offerings, from conch fritters to flounder sandwiches. It’s all made to order and to your liking—fried, grilled, or blackened. Wash it down with a glass of what they declare to be the best sweet tea on the island, and finish with a slice of strawberry Key Lime pie (when it’s seasonally available) or a cup of banana pudding.

Order: Hearty appetites should try the Shack Attack Combo ($17.95 for lunch, $19.95 for dinner), which combines a crab cake, fish, shrimp, scallops, and oysters on a giant paper platter. Homemade tartar sauce is the traditional accompaniment, but we think the brandy-infused gator sauce makes an even better platter slather.

6 Executive Park Road, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928,

With its lofted ceilings, lacquered-wood booths, and commitment to retro branding, this Sullivan’s Island seafood joint feels like it’s been there forever. In reality, it’s a newcomer—a spring 2022 top-to-bottom overhaul of a restaurant that had called the same spot home for 30 years. And while the nostalgically striped-umbrella-shaded patio is painfully charming, the takeaway window makes a strong case for a to-go shrimp roll savored on the beach just a few blocks away.

Order: The truffle parmesan fried shrimp ($21) were a menu mainstay before the restaurant changed hands, and the new owners agreed the beloved dish should stick around; the same goes for the Key lime pie ($10).

2019 Middle Street, Sullivan's Island, SC 29482,

So named for the trawler that was tossed ashore on the same spot during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, this dinner-only, no-reservations establishment on Shem Creek shrugs off formalities in favor of its dynamite creek views and deliciously simple seafood. The best seat in the house belongs to the wooden dockside bar, where sunset views and local craft beers are just an arm’s length away.

Order: Complete with red rice, coleslaw, a hushpuppy, and a fried hominy square, the shrimp platter (from $17.95) is a true taste of the Lowcountry. The deviled crab is also worth a try.

106 Haddrell Street, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464,

This family-owned lunch spot has been an island institution since it first opened its doors in 1978, and its magic belongs to its simplicity. They're only open for lunch, and you order through a carry-out window—though you don't have to take your food home. Snag one of the picnic tables on the porch for an especially satisfying alfresco dining experience.

Order: Given the restaurant's name, it's obvious you can't go wrong with shrimp here, but the shrimp burger ($9.25), served on a bun with tartar sauce and mayo, is a true crowd favorite.

1929 Sea Island Pkwy Saint Helena Island, SC 29920,

There’s something for everyone on the extensive menu at this landmark Grand Strand restaurant and seafood market owned by a fisherman father and his culinary-school-trained daughter. Choose a South Carolina classic, like the Lowcountry boil, or make the most of the raw bar and order a sushi roll or two. Stretch mealtime into a full-fledged Mr. Fish experience by reserving a ride to and from dinner in the Mr. Fishmobile, a bright blue school bus that hits all the nostalgic high notes.

Order: The seafood tacos ($18) are made with your choice of mahi, tuna, or shrimp and are topped with onions and sweet peppers.

6401 N. Kings Highway, Myrtle Beach, SC 29572,

Bluffton, South Carolina’s Old Town Offers Charming, Down-Home Living

Old Town, a down-home upscale neighborhood in the South Carolina river town of Bluffton, is defined by i...

Old Town, a down-home upscale neighborhood in the South Carolina river town of Bluffton, is defined by its Southern hospitality and luxurious lifestyle.

“It’s the heartbeat of Beaufort County and what draws many people to the area,” said Dave Jarman, a broker with Corcoran HM Properties. “‘Charming’ is the first word that comes to mind. ‘Welcoming’ is a close second.”

He added that Old Town is so darn friendly that “it’s common for strangers to say ‘hello’ or ‘how are ya’ll doing?’ as they pass by.”

The atmosphere, according to Mary Vaux Bell, an agent with Daniel Ravenel Sotheby’s International Realty, is “relaxed, chic and very down to earth.”

More: Home to Hobart’s ‘Millionaire’s Row,’ Sandy Bay Offers Waterfront Living and Walkability


Old Town, which may be accessed via car or boat, is bounded by Bridge Street and the May River waterway on the south, Burnt Church Road on the east, May River Road on the north and Verdier Cove Road on the west.

Price Range

Noting that properties in Old Town don’t come on the market very often, Ms. Vaux Bell said that riverfront or marsh-front single-family houses, which typically are on 0.75 of an acre to 2 acres, generally run $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

The inner streets of the community, whose houses are set on a quarter to a half acre, are also desirable places to live, she said, adding that they typically sell for around $1 million.

More: Londoners Pay a Pretty Penny to Live in Holland Park—Home to Summer Opera, Grand Mansions and Victoria Beckham

Housing Stock

The houses in Old Town, which is in a National Register Historic District and a Preserve America Community, were originally built and used as summer residences and typically feature significant porch space as well as interior space. They date from the 1800s to the present, and generally are on lots starting at one-tenth of an acre.

The architectural styles and materials, which range from clapboard siding and brick to tabby, vary.

“While there are new homes, many of the older ones have been updated or restored for a relaxed and understated yet posh coastal-cottage aesthetic,” Ms. Vaux Bell said. “The homes in the inner streets are mostly new but custom designed to blend in with the Spanish moss, mature oaks and oyster-shell driveways.”

Raw seafood, other items highlight the menu at Old Town Bluffton’s newest eatery

Old Town Bluffton’s new raw bar is set to fully open for both lunch and dinner this week.CRUDO has been serving guests for dinner since March 11, its soft launch, but will usher in its full opening this week with the addition of a lunch service. The raw bar can be found filling about half the space that was once the Corks Wine Bar in the Old Town B...

Old Town Bluffton’s new raw bar is set to fully open for both lunch and dinner this week.

CRUDO has been serving guests for dinner since March 11, its soft launch, but will usher in its full opening this week with the addition of a lunch service. The raw bar can be found filling about half the space that was once the Corks Wine Bar in the Old Town Bluffton promenade.

The address is 14 Promenade St., suite 306, Bluffton. The Promenade makes for a great location because of all the established restaurants nearby, CRUDO owner Brian Behnke said.

“With the established restaurants already here, we think we complement them well,” he said. “They’re all, you know, really good neighbors, and we’re really excited to be here.”

“Crudo” is the Italian and Spanish word for “raw,” and refers to a dish of uncooked fish, shellfish or meat, seasoned with olive oil, citrus juice or vinaigrette.

The menu features daily crudos, ceviches and other raw seafood dishes like oysters, caviar, salads, a few non-seafood plates and some Vietnamese dishes sprinkled in. All of CRUDO’s fish will be purchased from local market, Behnke said.

To pair with their dishes, CRUDO offers an assortment of wines, spirits and cocktails. Behnke, as a trained sommelier, will continue to curate CRUDO’s wine selection and is looking forward to recommending new ones to his guests.

Behind the bar is the Le Verre de Vin wine preservation system, which can preserve opened bottles for over 20 days. That way CRUDO can offer more wine by the glass, Behnke said.

A program called the Cru Club, which gives access to advanced reservation capacity, advanced sign up for special events, a reduced corkage fee and the ability to purchase the wine by the case for 15% over cost. Events will happen every other Wednesday, Behnke said.

They’re open 5-9 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays and closed on Tuesdays. On Sundays they serve a four-course family supper.

Dine-in and carry-out are available, according to the restaurant’s website.

CRUDO has a dress code, but it’s not extensive, only asking men not to wear hats or tank tops and for all guests to avoid athletic wear.

“While we’re upscale, we’re not formal and stiff,” said Behnke “It’s not like a formal dining experience where you get to sit here for three hours.”

Bluffton missing the worst of Ian’s impact

BLUFFTON, S.C. (WTOC) - Bluffton, South Carolina seemed to have missed the worst of Ian’s impact as those who live here now breathe a sigh of relief.Even though this area continues to see rainy and gusty conditions, many who live nearby have come to Bluffton’s waterfront park to get a look at things for themselves.Bluffton’s mayor says that even though she believes the worst of the storm is behind them she still plans to meet with emergency teams in the area to ensure they have a coordinated response in case a...

BLUFFTON, S.C. (WTOC) - Bluffton, South Carolina seemed to have missed the worst of Ian’s impact as those who live here now breathe a sigh of relief.

Even though this area continues to see rainy and gusty conditions, many who live nearby have come to Bluffton’s waterfront park to get a look at things for themselves.

Bluffton’s mayor says that even though she believes the worst of the storm is behind them she still plans to meet with emergency teams in the area to ensure they have a coordinated response in case anything does happen.

While many people say that they prepared heavily for this storm they’re ultimately glad that Ian didn’t have as much of an impact on Bluffton as what might have happened.

”Actually, I’ve been following this storm for a week and I was getting kind of nervous about it. It really wasn’t until last night that it was heading north, so we’re very fortunate,” Bluffton Resident Kathy Ferland said.

I feel sad for everybody else but we’re very fortunate.

Bluffton’s mayor is still urging people who live here to use caution if they have to venture out as winds here are still gusty.

She says their main focus now is turning to help other counties affected by this storm.

More people have been coming out of their homes as conditions have improved.

Many we’ve spoken to have said they were prepared for the storm but are ultimately glad to avoid any major impacts.

And while most of the Lowcountry wasn’t severely affected many who live here are still aware of the devastation that Ian brought to southwest Florida and is now bringing to other parts of South Carolina.

One man says the destruction in Florida is heavy on his heart.

“We’re all very fortunate that we did not experience the disaster that Florida had and my heart goes out to everyone down there. I hope that cleanup is prompt and resolution is swift,” Bluffton Resident Tom Stevens said.

That message echoed by many as Lowcountry residents now breathe a sigh of relief.

“Things seem to have calmed down a little and we were getting bored at home so we thought we’d just kind of stroll around,” said Ferland.

“It looks like a really bad thunderstorm went through here but it’s really from the wind gusts,” said Bluffton mayor, Lisa Sulka.

As neighbors begin to step outside their homes attention now focuses on relief efforts amid the devastation that Ian left behind in Florida.

The 3 Beaufort Memorial Medical Express Clinics including in Bluffton are expected to reopen Saturday morning at 8 a.m.

Copyright 2022 WTOC. All rights reserved.

Human waste may end oyster harvesting on the May River. Can Bluffton clean it up?

BLUFFTON — The May River is a nearly 15-mile, meandering stretch of water that bisects the town. At low tide, rolling patches of brown-green cordgrass reveal themselves, along with jagged beds of spitting oysters.In the winter, bufflehead ducks bob along with the current, while hooded mergansers try to avoid the bald eagles that make their nests in the sparse rows of trees yet to be felled by developers.In the warmer months, bottlenose dolphins shoulder their way around boats, kayaks and paddleboards.Many of the bo...

BLUFFTON — The May River is a nearly 15-mile, meandering stretch of water that bisects the town. At low tide, rolling patches of brown-green cordgrass reveal themselves, along with jagged beds of spitting oysters.

In the winter, bufflehead ducks bob along with the current, while hooded mergansers try to avoid the bald eagles that make their nests in the sparse rows of trees yet to be felled by developers.

In the warmer months, bottlenose dolphins shoulder their way around boats, kayaks and paddleboards.

Many of the boaters and paddlers came to Bluffton as tourists but were so taken by the river’s natural beauty that they bought property in one of the planned unit developments within the watershed.

Between 2001 and today, the town’s population has increased from about 2,500 to more than 32,000 people.

During those years, the May River’s water quality has declined. In 2001, the Department of Health and Environmental Control designated the May River an Outstanding Resource Water. In 2009, that same department shuttered shellfish harvesting on a 4-mile stretch at the river’s headwaters due to fecal coliform bacteria from human waste.

Despite efforts to reverse the trend, that section remains restricted today.

Scientists warn that development needs to stop or the entire river could be lost. Town officials, unable to reverse the clock on a massive population boom, have turned their focus to failing septic tanks.

Rising sea level

Larry Toomer’s business depends on the May River.

He owns the Bluffton Oyster Co., which holds the exclusive lease to commercially harvest oysters on the river. Toomer has also served on Town Council since 2012.

“The only way for human fecal coliform to be in the water is from failing septic tanks. Unless of course you just dropped your drawers and pooped in the river,” Toomer said.

On a cold January morning, he stood on the boat ramp outside the Bluffton Oyster Co. with a paper cup of steaming gas station coffee in hand.

A lifetime of wrestling shrimping nets has left him with a sturdy build. His rose-colored face is in stark contrast with his ghost-white hair.

Behind him, dense clouds of powdery fog swallowed the river, giving his shrimp trawler the illusion of flight. The well-worn ship is easily two stories tall. “Daddy’s Girls” is painted in black-and-blue block lettering on the side. Named for his three daughters, the trawler has become the unofficial town seal.

Stopping occasionally to greet customers by name as they trickled into Bluffton Oyster for the day’s catch, Toomer delivered an impromptu lecture on the inner workings of a septic system.

When a home is on a septic system, he said, everything that is flushed down the drain goes into a tank below the house. The solids are filtered out and held in the tank. The liquids go into a drain field below.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” Toomer said, elaborating on the path of human excrement. “Every day, right out the toilet.”

When a septic system is functioning property, the liquid waste percolates into the soil. There, natural microorganisms kill fecal coliform bacteria before they find their way into the river. A single teaspoon of healthy soil contains more of these micro-organisms than there are people on the earth.

But in Bluffton, human waste is being washed into the river before it has a chance to percolate into the soil. This malfunction is due, in part, to rising sea levels.

“I’m living proof. I started going in the river when I was 5, 6 years old. There are areas that used to never see saltwater that saltwater is now covering, and you can’t see the dirt,” Toomer said.

At high tide, the saltwater from the river is now breaching septic drain fields. At low tide, when the water retreats into the river, it brings with it any bacteria it may have picked up, including the potentially harmful bacteria found in human feces.

That bacteria can accumulate in oysters, which are constantly pumping water through their systems and pulling out the nutrients they need to survive. A contaminated river can mean contaminated oysters, which is why the Food and Drug Administration has strict water-quality guidelines around oyster harvesting.

Once a forest

While rising sea levels and septic systems are part of the problem, the loss of forested land around the May River is also a culprit, scientists say.

In a study published in 2021 in “Marine Pollution Bulletin,” scientists showed that when salinity in the river goes down, levels of fecal coliform go up. That is why, after heavy rainfall, the river registers higher levels of fecal coliform.

The study’s authors, including Professor Eric Montie from the University of South Carolina Beaufort, explained that one of the jobs of a maritime forest is to keep rainwater out of the river.

When rain falls on forested land, it gets absorbed into the soil. Then the trees suck water out of the forest floor and transfer it into the atmosphere in the form of evaporation.

In contrast, when rain hits an impermeable surface, like a roof or a paved road, it runs off and can find its way into the river.

The headwaters of the May River used to be surrounded by maritime forest. Today, the area is consumed with residential development, including Bluffton’s first and largest planned unit development, Palmetto Bluff.

The original developers envisioned a space where residential development could coexist within a preserved wilderness area. To that end, they set aside 130 acres of forested land along the May River, shielding it from development.

But with a total land mass of 20,000 acres, Palmetto Bluff also includes 4,000 entitled homesites, a country club, an 18-hole golf course, restaurants, shops, a marina, public docks, basketball, tennis and pickleball courts, a shooting club, a chapel, a spa, a post office and a luxury resort.

Montie’s recommendation is to slow down development and preserve more forested land within the watershed. But town officials argue they have little to no recourse for slowing down development.

Limited jurisdiction

Bluffton’s population boom began in the late 1990s, when town officials started allowing planned unit developments, which fell outside town limits, to annex in.

Before these communities annexed in, the town was only 1 square mile. Today, Bluffton is nearly 54 square miles. Ninety-two percent of that landmass falls within a planned unit development.

The development agreements were in place before the communities annexed in, which leaves town officials contractually obligated to honor agreements they did not make.

Under these development agreements, enough homes are plotted for Bluffton’s population to more than double, reaching an eventual 70,000 people.

“We’re squeezing more and more people into a smaller space than probably that many people should be living in,” said Kimberly Washok-Jones, director of projects and watershed resilience.

Although powerless to stop the growth, town officials can enforce best management practices for storm water runoff. Under these practices, all the planned unit developments are required to be on sanitary sewer.

Town officials are currently working to transfer the buildings on Bluffton’s remaining 8 percent of landmass over to sanitary sewer.

The problem is not all of the land within the watershed falls under the town’s jurisdiction. Much of the land to the north and east of the May River lies in unincorporated Beaufort County.

Many of the homes in this area are still on septic. It is also the lowest-lying area of the riverbank, leaving it the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority has estimated the cost of switching those homes to sanitary sewer to be somewhere between $8 and $9 million.

The town has offered to split the cost three ways with the sewer utility and Beaufort County.

Mayor Lisa Sulka and Town Council have given the town manager the go-ahead to sign the agreement. They are just waiting on Beaufort County.

“It’s time for us to get off our butts, put our money where our mouth is and get it done,” said Toomer from the boat ramp.

Toomer’s livelihood is not the only one at stake.

Bluffton Oyster Co. is the last remaining hand-shucking oyster house in the state. Through a window in the retail space, customers can watch the company’s 12 shuckers work.

Each shucker stands at a table with a stainless steel platform that has a rod sticking up. To break the shells, the shuckers place an oyster against the rod and give it a whack with a mallet. Then they scoop out the meat. A sign on the window asks people to please refrain from taking photos.

In addition to the shuckers, the Toomer family employs 15 oyster pickers. The workers go out at low tide and handpick each oyster that comes to market.

Wading through pluff mud — known locally as Carolina quicksand — can be dangerous. The pickers have to work with spotters.

The Toomers also employ a full staff at their restaurant, The Bluffton Family Seafood House, just up the road from the dock.

Much of the seafood at both the market and the restaurant comes fresh from the May River. Oysters harvested from the river are also shipped to restaurants around the state.

Outside Bluffton Oyster, which stands on reclaimed ground built up from a hundred years of discarded oyster shells, Toomer expressed confidence that Beaufort County would come up with its share of the money to switch the homes over to sanitary sewer.

Once all the septic tanks are gone, he feels strongly that the health of the river will take a turn for the better.


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