Living Responsibly in La Plata County

If you are interested in living in a place with a rural landscape and proximity to mountains, La Plata County is your huckleberry. But this dynamic region has a number of unique factors to consider as you plan your move including water restrictions, weather, wildfire, living with wildlife, and soil limitations. Learning about these important elements of life in Southwest Colorado, and tools to address them, will help our community thrive. 

Land use in La Plata County

What can be built on a property and the type of uses that can occur on your land will depend on where the property is located and many other factors, including whether you intend to use a property for commercial, agricultural, residential or mixed use purposes. When purchasing a property or considering development in the unincorporated areas of La Plata County, you may want to discuss your ideas with the Planning Department first. Give us a call at 970-382-6263.
Also check out requirements for municipalities including:

City of Durango
Town of Bayfield
Town of Ignacio 

Building

Building permits are required for all construction.  However, structures used for utility or storage sheds that are less than 200 square feet do not require a building permit. View the La Plata County Building Code and find useful resources including permit applications.

Onsite wastewater treatment systems (Septic systems)

Many residents and businesses use onsite wastewater treatment systems (or septic systems) – that are permitted by San Juan Basic Public Health Department. When a property with a septic system is sold, an inspection is required. If development is within 400 feet from a central sewer line at the parcel boundary, La Plata County Code (Sec. 70-3) requires the property to connect to central sewer. Find out more at https://sjbpublichealth.org/septic/

Living with Drought

Drought is our reality and as most of the county is considered “water critical”, it’s up to us to live responsibly to reduce water waste and prepare for years with low precipitation. This means considering a dependable water supply for your residence and/or business, utilizing landscaping that’s appropriate for the La Plata County climate, and utilizing responsible watering practices. A Colorado drought monitor can be found at https://climate.colostate.edu/drought_info.html.

Central Water Service –is available in some areas of the county. If development is within 400 feet from a central sewer line at the parcel boundary, La Plata County Code (Sec. 70-4) requires the property to connect to central water. There are many central water providers in the county ranging from metro districts to conservancy districts. Each has different service areas, requirements and pricing.

Wells – Well permits are issued by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, (970) 247-1845. Most well permits are issued for a single family residence, but you may also be able to obtain commercial and multi-family well permits. In areas of the County that are considered “water critical”, a well permit may not be available without a water plan for augmentation (a legal plan for obtaining a substitute water supply).  In addition, many areas of the county have highly variable groundwater quantity and quality.

Soil – The soils in La Plata County are mostly poor, highly variable, expansive and potentially unstable. This means that the soils have limited capacity for moisture, potentially leading to negative and costly impacts when building. Low soil absorption increases flooding hazard concerns and means making considerations for proper irrigation of landscapes and agriculture. Contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to find out what type of soil you have - (970) 422-3369.

Landscaping – When improving your property, select landscaping that will thrive in La Plata County. In Durango, choose plants adopted for climate zone 6a. The northern parts of the county move into zones 5 and 4. Find out more at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

In addition to climate zone considerations, select plants that are “low water” as any attempts to reduce our water usage in the region is helpful. Find out more by talking to local nurseries and the La Plata County Cooperative Extension office at (970) 382-6465 or see examples at https://www.thegardenglove.com/10-no-fail-perennials-for-low-water-gardens/.

Trees – The City of Durango Urban Forestry contains helpful information along with their Tree & Shrub Guide. The Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) & CSU Extension provide tree pruning guidelines as well as a lot of publications for homeowners & landowners for tree selection, planting, care, and pruning can be found at https://csfs.colostate.edu/homeowners-landowners/publications-for-homeowners-landowners/.  Also, if have concerns about your native tree species (Pinon, Juniper, Ponderosa Pine) contact the CSFS to discuss what might be affecting your tree health, better times of year to possibly remove sick trees to prevent further bark beetle spread, and other options during drought years at (970) 247-5250. A quick guide to Pinon Ips Bark Beetle that is prevalent in LPC can be found here: https://csfs.colostate.edu/2020/06/25/new-quick-guide-for-managing-pinon-ips-bark-beetle/ 

Weeds – Agricultural and natural resources are protected by the Colorado Noxious Weed Act (35-5.5 CRS, 2003).  This law requires landowners to manage undesirable plants, establishes a state-wide noxious weed list, and prioritizes management goals for the weeds on the
A. (eradication), B. (containment), and C. (control) lists, respectively. The Colorado Noxious Weed Act requires private landowners to remove noxious weeds from their property. Find out if your weeds are noxious here: https://www.co.laplata.co.us/services/weed_management/index.php

Purchase weed- and seed-free hay, plant-certified seed, and reseed soil that has been disturbed with a seed mix that will produce desirable grasses that will prevent weed growth.

Right to Farm

La Plata County is a “Right-to-Farm” county. Landowners, residents, and visitors must be prepared to accept the activities, sights, sounds, and smells agricultural operations as a normal and necessary aspect of living in a county with a strong rural character and a healthy agricultural sector. Those with an urban sensitivity may perceive such activities, sights, sounds, and smells only as inconvenience, eyesore, noise, and odor. However, state law and individual county policies provide that ranching, farming, or other agriculture activities and operations shall not be considered to be nuisances so long as operated in conformance with the law and in a non-negligent manner. Therefore, all must be prepared to encounter noises, odors, lights, mud, dust, smoke, chemicals, machinery on public roads, livestock on public roads, storage and disposal of manure, and the application of spraying or otherwise of chemical fertilizers, soil amendments, herbicides, and pesticides, any one or more of which may naturally occur as part of legal and non-negligent agriculture operations.

Colorado Fence and Trespass Law - Either living in an urban area or on the rural landscapes of Colorado the old adage “Good fences makes good neighbors” rings true still today. In the early years of statehood, Colorado enacted the “Fence Law” or “Open Range Law” and this legislation is still in force today with some revision. The Fence Law in Colorado addresses key items like defining what a lawful fence is, who is responsible for construction and maintenance of lawful fence and who can claim damages for trespass.

Agricultural irrigation – the Natural Resources Conservation Service has a local office and a wealth of information on irrigation of crops and agriculture parcels. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/co/technical/ecoscience/?cid=nrcs144p2_062987

Proper irrigation – Learn how to water properly in this drought-prone environment where soils can challenge your landscaping efforts.

Use drip irrigation when possible! This is a great way to provide the water your landscape needs without overusing water. Learn more about drip irrigation here. 

Another way to be water smart is by a process known as “Soak and Cycle”. This provides only the water your soil can handle, providing just enough water to support the root systems of your landscape.

Landslides - Colorado experiences many landslides each year due to steep terrain and arid soils. Heavy rain or layers of snow are capable of moving large amounts of rock and layers of soil. How can landslides impact you?

Soil analysis and geologic or hazard surveys may be required prior to building depending on the location. Find out more at https://pubs.usgs.gov/dds/dds-071/geologic_maps/durango_east.pdf

Debris flows, floodways and building - FEMA maps are available through the County GIS to determine the risk to your property and to identify buildable areas. Refer to these maps to determine what boundaries occur and refer to land use and building code to determine what is allowable. 

Weather

Wind - can be a constant depending on where your property is in La Plata County.
To prepare your home against wind caulk cracks and reduce areas where the wind can enter the home around pipes or window panes. Combine this with recognizing where debris collects in the wind and install flashing in these areas to reduce ignitions from wildfire embers.
Secure outside lawn games and furniture to reduce loss and damage from strong winds.

Snow - can occur at any time in La Plata County. Even summer storms can leave snow at high elevation. The building code considers snow load on your roof and making sure your roof is structurally sound is important.

Snow can act as a blanket around plants protecting them from the cold.  As snow melts, it is feeding vegetation and replenishing our watershed making it a welcome part of our weather pattern.

Wildfire
There are many different ecosystems in La Plata County and each has its own cycle that determines when fire should naturally move through the landscape to clear debris, release seeds, and rejuvenate the ecosystem. As the population increases, it decreases fire’s natural ability to move through a landscape and leaves the responsibility of ecosystem health to the community.

Most of La Plata County is at high risk for wildfire. To encourage healthy fires that restore ecosystems steps can be taken to reduce the risk to structures and reduce the rate of fire spread.

Sign up for emergency notifications through the Office of Emergency Management Code Red program

Learn about reducing the risk to your home through FireWise and Colorado State Forest Service guidelines for structures and mitigation and how you can create wildfire-defensible zones around your home https://csfs.colostate.edu/media/sites/22/2021/04/2021_CSFS_HIZGuide_Web.pdf.

Prepare for when the fire occurs and your home is directly impacted, or you need to be evacuated. https://www.readyforwildfire.org/prepare-for-wildfire/ready-set-go/.

More tips are available in the Homeowners Action List and Resource Guide.

Wildfire Mitigation – land use code requirements apply to subdivisions. Homeowners interested in reducing their wildfire risk should reach Wildfire Adapted Partners for an assessment and resources. https://www.wildfireadapted.org/

Smoke

Given the frequency of wildfire and prescribed burns in La Plata County, expect smoke to be in the air from time to time. Prepare to close windows and make other adjustments to reduce health risks related to smoke inhalation. Individuals who are sensitive to smoke are encouraged to contact their fire protection district to be added to a notification list when prescribed burns are scheduled.

The Colorado Division of Public Health and the Environment daily posts on local air quality.

Locate where smoke is coming from: Depending on wind patterns, the smoke may be coming from another state. http://sanjuanheadwaters.org/smoke/

Living with Wildlife

La Plata County is known for having abundant wildlife! With a vast network of public lands, wildlife has ample habitat in which to thrive. This also means that wildlife are often on roadways, and motorists should use caution to avoid hitting deer, elk and other animals that call La Plata County home.

Utilize garbage bins with locking lids that won’t allow bears to get into them and never leave out food for wildlife. Find out more at Bear Smart Durango.

Help keep our local wildlife population healthy and strong: Install fencing that will reduce wildlife injury and doesn’t prevent  migratory movement

Roads and Driveways

Prior to developing on a 35 acre lot confirm if it was created after October 1, 2020 and if so, the access road must meet county road standards.
Driveway standards and a driveway permit may be required, reach the appropriate jurisdiction.

Contacts and Resources

Active mining and abandoned mines: Division of Minerals and Geology, (303) 866-3567; http:// mining.state.co.us

Colorado Division of Wildlife (970) 247-0855 http:// wildlife.state.co.us

Colorado Property & Insurance Wildfire Preparedness Guide https://csfs.colostate.edu/media/sites/22/2018/10/CSFS-2018-Wildfire-and-Insurance-brochure-22x8.5_2018-V5.pdf

Colorado State Forest Service (970) 247-5250; www.colostate.edu/Depts/CSFS

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension (970) 382-6463

Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, P.O. Box 1651, Durango, CO 81302; (303) 271- 1577; http://www.cclt.org

Colorado Weed Management Association, 4800 County Rd. 56, P.O. Box 1910, Granby, CO 80446-1910; (970) 887-1228; http://www.cwma.org

Grazing Natural Resources Conservation Service 970-259-3280
La Plata County Cooperative Extension Office (970) 382-6463
Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners, (303) 866-3454; http:// lands.state.co.us U.S. Bureau of Land Management (under United States Government, Interior, Department of); http://www.blm.gov/ nhp/index.htm

Geologic hazards: County planning offices Colorado Geological Survey, (303) 866- 2611; http://www.geosurvey. state.co.us
San Juan Basin Public Health (970) 247-5702 https://sjbpublichealth.org/

Homesite Planning La Plata County Planning https://www.co.laplata.co.us/services/community_development_services/planning/index.php (970)382-6263 and Building Department https://www.co.laplata.co.us/services/community_development_services/building/index.php
(970) 382-6250.

Livestock laws: Brand Inspection Division, Colorado Agriculture Commission, (303) 294-0895; http://www. ag.state.co.us/livestockinspection/ LivestockInspection.html

Mountain Studies Institute: http://www.mountainstudies.org/research-initiatives

Radon: Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8: 1-800-277-8917; http://www. EPA.gov

Soils and Soil surveys: Local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (under United States Government, Department of Agriculture in the phone book); http://www.co.nrcs.usda.gov/ contact/index.html  (970) 259-3280

Trees and Forests Colorado State forest Service (970) 247-5250; www.colostate.edu/Depts/CSFS

Water Well permits and rights: Division of Water Resources Ground Water Information; http://water. state.co.us/groundwater/ groundwater.asp (Durango), (970) 247-1845

Water Quality Wetlands: Natural Resources Conservation Service (970) 259-3280

Weeds La Plata County Cooperative Extension Office (970) 382-6463

National EPA Wetlands Hotline: 1-800-832- 7828 U.S Army Corps of Engineers district offices for Colorado: State and federal water quality laws: Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, (303) 692-3500; http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/wq/ wqhom.asp EPA Region 8 toll-free number: 1-800-227- 8917

U.S. Forest Service (under United States Government, Department of Agriculture): http://www.fs.fed.us

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service https://www.fws.gov/coloradoes/contact.php