A facelift for Helen’s
Charrette looks into the future of local landmark

The familiar site of Helen’s Store, at the Vallecito and Lemon dam cut-off, greets travelers looking for bait, snacks or other provisions. The store and adjoining 5 acres was recently purchased from Helen’s daughte by Don Hutchins, who wants to expand the store’s offerings./Courtesy photo

by Stew Mosberg

Sounding like a steamy encounter at the corner mart, the La Plata County Planning Department recently conducted a charrette at the venerable Helen’s Store. The innovative planning session met March 5 at the local landmark, which stands at the intersection of Florida Road and the cut off for Vallecito and Lemon reservoirs.

Despite its fancy name, a charrette, for those unfamiliar with the word, has come to mean a comprehensive design plan strategy. When referencing urban planning, the sophisticated, sultry-sounding French term incorporates detailed meetings involving municipal officials, developers and residents. A successful charrette fosters joint ownership of resolutions and tries to avoid clashes between residents and developers.

In the case of Helen’s Store, the Planning Department sent invitations to stakeholders and neighboring property owners who might be affected by any expansion or change of the area. A diverse group of 20 people showed up for the afternoon soiree, including planners, a dozen neighbors and employees of Russell Engineering, hired by the applicant Don Hutchins, the owner of Helen’s store.

Hutchins, a Californian, has been visiting Durango for many years and became enamored with the little grocery store. He tried buying it on numerous occasions, until Helen’s daughter inherited it and eventually acquiesced. The store, which has served passers-by since 1936, sits on the corner of almost 5 acres of land bordering the Florida River. In addition to the diminutive wooden structure housing the grocery, there are several storage sheds, barns and a live-in trailer, spread chock-a-block across the property.

With a host of ambitious plans to turn the familiar site into more than just a place to stop and ask directions, or pick up bait, beef jerky or a bag of chips, Hutchins asked the county for the design proposal discussion.

The actual charrette started on the site. The gathering of interested parties listened to Hutchins’ plan, asked questions and walked the site with the engineers and planning department personnel. Hutchins’ vision for the acreage includes adding a cafe and liquor store and extending the product offerings at the grocery. To this last point, Hutchins’ said, “When I bought it, I didn’t know I couldn’t sell anything here but small stuff.”

After walking the property and studying possible points of access, as well as the vegetation, flood plain and existing structures, several obvious concerns were raised, not the least of which is the potential increase in traffic and noise. Hutchins has also proposed live music and dancing in the tavern/café.

Located at a bend in the road with two blind spots that are well-trafficked during “rush” hour, safety issues arose along with concerns over maintaining the rural complexion of the surrounding landscape.

Following the initial visit, the group reconvened at the county courthouse for a working session that included a brainstorming conference relevant to the strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities of the planned project. The meeting incorporated the literal sketching out of concepts and creating a visual representation of the development.

La Plata County, as with many communities in the region, experienced rapid growth over the past two decades, prompting the need for descriptive land use planning. The Florida Road District Land Use Plan was created in 1996 and covers such critical topics as road capacity, water and sewage, visual and wildlife impact, and structural covenants governing appearance and environmental compliance. All of these will guide the Helen’s Store expansion plans.

With particular reference to thoroughfare conditions, The Florida Road District Land Use Plan states that, “While the County is in the midst of a long-range program to upgrade the road, financial considerations and physical constraints will continue to limit the extent to which the road will be upgraded and thus traffic capacity will continue to be limited in the foreseeable future.”

In its out-of-the-way location, any new restaurant facility, or packaged goods store and expanded grocery, could benefit residents near the upper reaches of Florida Road, or vacationers and campers at the Vallecito and Lemon dam areas, as well as Bayfield and Forest Lakes.

Whatever is approved in the final report and analysis, it is Hutchins’ hopes that he will be able to complete work within a year of approval. •