DAUFUSKIE ISLAND — Lancy Burn's granddad used to tend the lighthouse at the end of Prospect Road. For generations his family has traveled the dirt thoroughfare under the trees on this isolated and historic barrier island.

Now they might be about to lose their Prospect Road access in the type of pitched battle between private property owners and public use that's emblematic of South Carolina's developing coast.

A newly arrived owner, industrialist Reed Dulany III, wants to close off much of it and has set gate posts to do it. He can because he owns the road.

Most of the 400 people on the island are in an uproar. Like a lot of traditional, centuries-old communities, Daufuskie never filed easements or took public possession of most of its roads. A road was a road. People simply used them.

"People brought their shucked oysters down them. They brought in their crops," said Burn, 79. "The thing about Daufuskie is, there are very few roads so each one is critical. Nobody ever thought about (ownership). When (the new owner) bought, the road was like that. It's been like that for 300 years, and he wants to change it."

Daufuskie is the almost mythical island below Hilton Head Island at the southern tip of South Carolina. The only way to get to the 8-square-mile patch of barrier island is by boat. The place was made famous by celebrated author Pat Conroy who wrote "The Water Is Wide," later the film "Conrack," about teaching in a one-room school house there in 1969. 

Its inhabitants have included prehistoric native tribes, Spanish settlers, Gullah communities and — since Conroy — upscale residents who have built around resort golf courses. Its roads are the paths they wore and are mostly still dirt, traveled by foot, horse or golf cart as much as by car.  

The mile-long Prospect Road runs across the the southern stretch of the island under a canopy of woods that were traditional hunting grounds. It is considered one of the most scenic stretches on the island. If it's closed, residents would have to go around Dulany's property on another, swampier road to cross the island, they say.

Their stand-off resembles any number of other battles along the once remote barrier islands. For centuries people made their way across the unoccupied lands to hunt, fish, relax or just get somewhere until development began crowding the prized beaches.

Dulany is president of Dulany Industries, a business affiliated with the Savannah, Georgia, port. The property he bought several years ago on either side of the road is about 200 acres of an island only 5,000 acres in size.

"We have experienced significant trespassing, theft, littering, poaching, liability and safety issues," Dulany said in an email he sent to The Post and Courier.

Deborah Smith, chairwoman of the Daufuskie Island Council, said Dulany's characterization is grossly unfair.

"Although our crime rate is among the lowest of any place in the state, there are occasional problems with littering and vandalism," she said. "But is the answer that property owners should close down the roads in order to address such problems?"

Dulany recently brought his case to the Beaufort County Council for the second time in as many years, almost as a courtesy. Resident opposition halted his earlier attempt to end county maintenance on the road, essentially curtailing public investment on it. He is now seeking a compromise solution that would satisfy all parties, he said.

He told council members he would hold off gating the road to give council a chance to find that compromise.

If he does go ahead with the closing, the county likely would go to court for an easement, citing the road's long public use and county maintenance, said Roberts "Tabor" Vaux, Jr., the council member who represents Daufuskie.

"Council made it pretty clear to staff two years ago to take any legal effort to keep it open to the public," Vaux said.

Open to the public is the way of Daufuskie, Burn said. Anything else is foreign.

"Theoretically, my family could close down half the roads on the island," he said.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.