The carpark at Fowlds Park will soon be hosting free-campers in self-contained campervans and caravans, and other local parks will also be targeted
By Bruce Morris
Auckland Council is marching ahead with its plan to open up potentially hundreds of supercity parks, reserves and parking areas to freedom campers – and Mt Albert is right in the firing line.
The council’s regulatory committee this week directed officers to draw up a freedom camping proposal and draft bylaw to increase the supply of Auckland sites and improve enforcement.
The bylaw, which will go to the committee in November and then to public consultation, intends to “take a proactive approach to managing freedom camping and to address primary harms”.
A report before the meeting says the bylaw “gives the council the ability to design and enforce restrictions on how the activity is carried out. This means freedom campers can be directed to sites where they are likely to cause the least amount of harm and their behaviour can be more proactively managed”.
The step is to a large extent being forced on the council by state legislation, but it is certain to be challenged strongly through the consultation process and likely to cause some anxiety in the lead-up to the local body elections.
The bylaw proposes:
- Opening the door to freedom campers at 94 sites for self-contained vans with toilets, water supply and waste water provision;
- Providing 13 sites for vehicles without toilets;
- Banning camping in 312 council-owned parks, reserves and carparks
- Improved enforcement
But that just scratches the surface of the potential number of sites. Hundreds of other city parks and carparks will also be open to campers under the 2011 Freedom Camping Act which requires local authorities to generally allow (and control) camping on their public land unless other statutes specifically forbid it.
At the moment, the council is relying on legacy bylaws of dubious legal standing that in most cases simply ban camping – a stance contrary to the over-riding seven-year-old legislation.
The council, well behind other local authorities, now accepts it’s time to correct the anomalies.
Documents before the committee showed just three parks in the Albert Eden Local Board area will be specifically excluded from a new bylaw allowing freedom campers: Coyle Park in Pt Chevalier, Nixon Park in Kingsland and Heron Park in Waterview.
As well, officers have decided four Albert-Eden locations will be available for self-contained vehicles (those equipped with a toilet and water supply): Eric Armishaw Park, Pt Chevalier; Fowlds Park, Mt Albert; Raymond Reserve, Pt Chevalier; Western Springs Gardens, Pt Chevalier. Coyle Park was on that list to start with, but has since been elevated to camper-free territory.
The Albert Eden Local Board wanted all parks in its area to go on the “camping prohibited” list, but that stance was rejected by council officers.
The local restricted sites have been chosen because they are well-positioned – close to motorways and handy to local attractions of interest to visitors.
They will be promoted by the council on websites and social media as part of a well-placed network of council-owned parks, carparks and reserves that will be available to freedom campers.
But it is most unlikely there will be any mention of the many other local parks and carparks where camping may also be legal – places like Phyllis Reserve, Ferndale Park, Mt Albert Community Library, Hendon Park, Mt Albert War Memorial Reserve, Owairaka Park, Warren Freer Park, Waterview Reserve, and Sandringham Community Centre.
They are deemed to be “low desirability” targets for freedom campers and will only be added to the network (with the appropriate signs and restrictions) if they unexpectedly start to attract visitors.
Legally-speaking, it seems there’s nothing to stop visitors from hitching up their campervans right now in many of these places so long as they behave themselves. It’s just that most people imagine it’s against the law and they don’t want the embarrassment of police or local residents telling them to move on.
The only potential obstacle: camping is separately banned in those council-owned parks listed under the Reserve Act (though the council is investigating ways of allowing it in some cases), and others covered by different statutes (like regional parks) or under shared ownership, like the maunga.
The 2011 act that forces the council’s hand was passed originally to accommodate the hordes of visitors here for the Lions rugby tour, and the number of camping tourists, mainly young international travellers, has galloped away since then. In 2015, 60,000 tourists enjoyed freedom camping; last year the total had grown to 110,000.
On top of that are mobile Kiwis and, with the baby boomers reaching retirement age, more and more “grey nomads” are hitting the road and looking for a free night’s stay in campervans and caravans.
In Auckland, 70 per cent of freedom campers are from overseas, and half of them spend three days or less in the city. Research shows most of them use social media apps to plan their stay, giving the council a clear path to promote the sites they’ve chosen.
Most other New Zealand local authorities have already met their responsibilities under the act, which basically rules that campers must be allowed on council or conservation public land unless there are specific reasons to exclude them.
The legislation, which gives councils the right to impose instant fines rather than trying to haul offenders off to court, was passed in the hectic early days of the supercity when a million balls were in the air.
Since then, Auckland Council has been relying on those legacy bylaws that would offer little challenge to lawyers with a focus on the force of the act… hence no prosecutions, and probably fingers-crossed compliance officers wondering what they’d do if an overnight tent town popped up in a local park.
[Under those bylaws, there are just 14 freedom camping sites with total capacity for 107 vehicles. All of them are in the former Rodney and Franklin districts and they were designated more than 15 years ago.]
The act and subsequent local bylaws seem to have worked reasonably well in most parts of the country. But local authorities have often struggled to find a balance between protecting the interests of their communities and meeting the expectation of tourists and domestic visitors. Free camping tourists using New Zealand’s wide open spaces as a toilet doesn’t raise much enthusiasm for the cause.
Once the Auckland bylaw is passed, campers will have to follow rules that:
- Specify the type of vehicle;
- Limit the number of campers at any one time and detail where they can park;
- Introduce maximum stays of two nights;
- Cut stays to one night with a “vacate” time of 9am for busy sites.
But that only goes for the 107 restricted sites to be listed under the bylaw where most campers will be directed through the council communication channels. “General rules” will apply at unofficial sites down at the local park and it’s unclear how specific they will be.
While most campers will treat the sites with respect, community concerns will focus on the ability of council compliance officers to handle problems swiftly and effectively, especially if some visitors start treating all parks as their own.
How quickly, for example, can an officer respond to a camper who sets up in a non-self-contained van and then takes a toilet break behind a park tree?
The report before this week’s committee meeting referred to a 2017 trial and noted that the most popular sites with young international travellers were those that allowed non-self-contained camping.
The result, in council-speak: “The council experienced issues with overcrowding and a concentration of harm at these sites.”
Read that as too many people making a big mess and a lot of noise. Interesting times ahead.