Dewees Island

By Carolyn Haar

I’m definitely in favor of protecting the environment. I admit to secretly feeling smug when my recycling bin is twice as full as any of my neighbors, and I drive a small eco-friendly car. But any high-minded ideas I had about my pro-environment contributions flew out the window the first time I visited Dewees Island. I didn’t know a place like this existed.

Photo of a rainbow over Dewees Island

Photograph by Judy Drew Fairchild

Dewees is a private island sandwiched between several fully developed barrier islands to its south and a 60-mile stretch of uninhabited Lowcountry wilderness and shoreline to its north, and it takes the best of each world. There is development, complete with lovely homes that have every modern comfort, but the focus of human intrusion, large and small, is to keep the environment pristine.

With planning, a few rules and a general consensus among all of its residents, Dewees Island has become and will remain a deliberate coexistence between man and nature, with an emphasis on nature. Eco-friendly development on Dewees does not mean that a few green spaces are left here and there. On Dewees, the land and every plant, insect and animal on it is revered and left as untouched as possible.

All of Dewees Island was placed in a conservation easement in 1975, which also sets a maximum of 150 home sites (there are currently 64 completed homes). In addition, the island’s Architectural Resource Board has developed guidelines regarding maximum home height, acceptable building materials, the sole use of non-toxic paints and varnishes, eco-friendly roofing materials and even home orientation (to take advantage of ocean breezes and solar warmth) that minimize the homes’ effects on the environment.

Each home is allowed to permanently disturb only 7,500 square feet of area, including the driveway and yard. Homes are required to be built within the tree canopy, so that they are less visible (which also makes for fantastic bird watching from porches). And if you’re looking for a beachfront home in the dunes right next to the ocean, Dewees is not the place. The “beachfront” homes here take second place to nature’s protective barriers – salt marsh, maritime forest and dunes. Even when Dewees is completely built, with all 150 homes, 94 percent of the island will remain original environment.

The only way to get to Dewees Island is by private ferry or watercraft, and once there, transportation is by electric golf cart, bicycle or foot. Nothing can be paved, but the crushed-shell roads are very navigable.

The 20-minute ferry ride is so lovely, it seems more like a tour than a means of transportation. There are two ferry boats (for residents, renters and invited guests only), one large, one smaller, and ferry times are on the hour from Isle of Palms and on demand from the Dewees side.

Directly off the Dewees ferry dock is the Landings Building. Downstairs there are post office boxes for the residents, a small room where mailed packages await pick-up and a place to fill up with reverse-osmosis filtered water that residents may use for drinking, coffee, etc. The tap water on Dewees is safe to drink, however there are minerals left in it that help decrease pipe corrosion but don’t help the taste. (Water bottles, which are filling earth’s oceans, are discouraged.)

Upstairs in the Landings Building there is an impressive little museum and Nature Center run by a full-time environmental staff housed on the island. A small pond with live turtles and other creatures stands in the center, creating a peaceful background noise of running water. Also in the room are skeletons of animals that have met their demise on or near Dewees, plaques outlining the history of the island and a wall of cases holding historical artifacts that residents have found, grouped according to centuries. The case of items from the 1600s includes a wrought iron nail, a clay pipe stem and Native American pottery. Artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries include a cannon ball, metal buttons, glass, earthenware and an oyster knife.



Photograph by Judy Drew Fairchild

The abundance and diversity of wildlife on Dewees Island are a testament to its philosophy of environmental preservation. Raccoons, a variety of turtles, alligators, otters, minks, deer, frogs and birds (from anhingas to wrens and just about everything in between), all thrive on the island. In the surrounding ocean, on the beach and in the tidal pools, there are shells and animals rarely found on islands that are more densely populated with people.

I was fortunate to have South Carolina master naturalist and Dewees Island resident Judy Drew Fairchild as my guide the day I visited, and there was a new wonder to discuss with every step we took. I was told (and don’t remember) the name and several facts about every butterfly, bird, flower, mammal, sea creature, shell, tree, turtle and insect I could point to. I even ate a leaf of the Hercules club tree (also called a toothache tree) because I was told that if you chew a leaf, your mouth will become numb. Who can resist that challenge? And it worked, as effectively as anything from a drug store.

We passed cormorants, loons, egrets, herons and a pair of bald eagles that had nested on an osprey pole close to the edge of the marsh. I didn’t need a lens or binoculars to see them clearly, which is certainly the closest I have ever been to a bald eagle. And although, according to Fairchild, eagles on the Eastern Seaboard rarely take over osprey poles, this particular couple had nested in that spot for several years.

How it Works

No bridge. No cars. No stores on the island. It’s undoubtedly peaceful. But what happens if there is a fire or medical emergency? And how do common household occurrences such as appliance delivery, repairs, garbage pick-up and moving day take place?

Emergency situations are solved by the presence of a Public Safety Department, which includes a fire department with a full-time fire chief who lives on the island with his wife. There is also a first responder on duty each night who stays in an apartment at the firehouse. A helicopter landing pad permits easy transport to area hospitals, and for injuries or illnesses that don’t merit air delivery, the island keeps an emergency boat. The water system, a state-of-the-art sewage system and solid waste and recycling are all taken care of by the Dewees Utility Corporation.

There are a few construction trucks left parked at the Public Works Department that may be rented by builders, as well as vehicles owned by contractors such as SCE&G to use when they need to work on Dewees. And there is a pick-up truck owned by the Property Owners’ Association that may be rented to move large items, such as furniture and appliances, from the dock to a home.

If an item fits, it can be transported to the island via the ferry with some advance notice. For larger deliveries, including construction materials, golf carts, refrigerators and even full moving vans, there is a barge. The barge is also used to remove the garbage dumpsters and recycle bins. So while it may take a bit more planning, there is really nothing on Dewees that can’t be accomplished much as it is on islands accessible by bridges or the mainland.


Living on a secluded island is not for everyone. Organization is key, as is a relaxed attitude. Residents and visitors need to be able to plan ahead, compose great lists, yet be able to make do and move forward if they realize they’re out of soy sauce in the middle of cooking a favorite stir-fry.

As Fairchild put it, “It’s laid-back punctuated by moments of chaos.” The example she gave was a day she planned to stop by Whole Foods in Mt. Pleasant for two things, only to find it was the grand opening of the store’s renovations. The crowds were much larger than usual, and by the time she checked out and got to the ferry, she had missed it by 30 seconds.

Planning and the potential for “chaos” also means getting up in time for the 6:30 a.m. ferry for families with school-age children. School buses meet the ferry for the final trek to local schools and drop them off at the ferry dock after school. But an additional 20 minutes in the morning can mean the difference between finding where last night’s homework is hiding and going to school without it.

Shopping trips, doctor’s appointments, even school events need to be planned more carefully and in advance for Dewees residents than for other people. But these minor inconveniences, for the kind of people that flourish here, are completely offset by the positive lifestyle aspects the island offers.


Photograph by Judy Drew Fairchild

In addition to the closeness to nature, the peacefulness and the knowledge that you are doing more for the earth than dragging your full recycling bin to the street every other week, one of the greatest benefits of living on Dewees is the close-knit community. Dewees residents are close for three main reasons: 1) They share similar priorities and ideals 2) An effort is made to be that way and 3) They need each other (when you are out of soy sauce and you really, really want that stir-fry – the closest place to find some is next door).

The opportunity to know and socialize regularly with other island neighbors was part of the original master plan for Dewees Island. According to Fairchild, one of the things early developers really believed in was the value of “accidental meeting places to build community.” One of these places is the ferry, but there are others that are built in to the island, including the lovely wrap-around porch on the Nature Center, which is Fairchild’s favorite place to watch the sunset. Another is the crabbing dock, with canoes available for community use and, during the summer, the best crabbing on the island. It’s also just a beautiful place, full of birds, turtles, wildflowers and the sound of wind and water. “I have a friend who used to show up here with a pot of coffee and some crab lines and a Scrabble board and just hang out to see who showed up to play Scrabble and go crabbing,” said Fairchild.

There are also many planned events and opportunities for neighbors on Dewees to get together. These include a ladies’ coffee hour on Wednesdays, monthly book club, regular poker game, Friday evening happy hour, as well as community meetings, oyster roasts, July 4th festivities, and, it seems, just about any other reason residents can think of to enjoy each other’s company.

Each summer solstice weekend, the community puts on a summer stock musical, which have included Camelot, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, South Pacific (re-worked as South Atlantic) and this year’s choice, Oklahoma (re-worked as Carolina).

The children on Dewees probably benefit most from life on the island. “It’s kind of a cool lifestyle,” remarked Fairchild, “because the kids are pretty safe here. We teach them early on what to respect, but they have free reign on their bicycles. And there are good climbing trees.” With a laugh she added, “There are about eight kitchens on the island that my kids are comfortable going into to see what’s cooking – see if it’s better than what’s at home.”

Dewees children are more like siblings than neighbors, and they all learn very young to fish, throw a cast net, crab, kayak, canoe, drive a boat and run and play all over the island that is their playground. “Since my kids were like 7,” explained Fairchild, “I’ve been able to say ‘Please go get me dinner. Just go get dinner.’ It might be shrimp, clams; it might be fish; it might be mussels. But they would be able to come back home with dinner,” which not only sounds like fun for a child, but is also an incredible way to instill responsibility, pride in accomplishment (that they actually did accomplish) and self-reliance in them.

Dewees Island is magical – just as much a haven for nature as it is for the people who live there, and that’s not an easy balance these days. It’s not for everyone, nor is it a practical model for the development needed to keep up with housing and work places for an ever growing population – yet. But it’s comforting to know it’s there. That it is possible.