Council considers limits on freedom camping as numbers soar

8:48 pm on 12 July 2020

Freedom camping spots causing problems around Whangārei could be in for the chop as the district grapples with a 160 percent increase in freedom campers in just three years.

Freedom campers at Kowharewa Bay, on the Tutukaka coast. 31 December 2018 Northern Advocate Photograph by John Stone

Five of the eight problem hot spots are along the Tutukaka Coast. Photo: Northern Advocate / John Stone

Thirteen thousand freedom campers visited Whangārei last summer - up from 5000 in 2017/2018.

"Extensive monitoring over the past three summers highlighted persistent problematic areas and the situation has worsened as demand for freedom camping increased," Whangārei District Council manager strategy Vita Strohush said.

The increased demand means the council has brought forward the review of its first-ever Camping In Public Places Bylaw which came into force three years ago. A public consultation review is scheduled for September/October and a new draft bylaw is expected by December with final adoption in February.

Restrictions under the bylaw review would have to be done within the constraints of the Freedom Camping Act, Strohush said.

"Removal or reduction of any of the existing freedom camping sites would be a complex issue…"

Strohush said freedom camping growth came alongside a big increase in the number of visitors to Whangārei which also put pressure on popular beaches and public places. There were 7000 extra visitors between 2017 and 2020.

Demand was expected to continue growing, even with Covid-19 impacts. "We expect demand to bounce back going just with domestic tourism."

International travel would likely resume in five to 10 years, adding to domestic growth.

There had been a drop of only 20 percent in Whangārei district freedom camping numbers at Queen's Birthday weekend, the first long weekend after the Covid-19 lockdown.

"There were 333 freedom campers staying this year compared with 419 last year," Strohush said.

Vehicles that aren't self-contained cause concern

More freedom campers resulted in conflicts over competing uses and difficulties with public access in problem hot spots. There were concerns over freedom campers travelling in vehicles that weren't self-contained. Overcrowding was also among the issues.

Nineteen freedom camping sites are now under the spotlight - eight are heavily-used hot spots with persistent problems, Strohush said.

Five of the problem hot spots are along the Tutukaka Coast - at Kowharewa Bay on Tutukaka Harbour, Matapōuri's (Wehiwehi Road), Sandy Bay (toilet block carpark), Wellington's Bay and Woolleys Bay - along with three others at Ocean Beach (Whangārei Heads), Ruakākā Beach Reserve and Tamaterau on Whangārei Harbour.

Eleven other freedom camping areas are also to be dealt with - eight are new default sites that are to be regulated.

Three already-designated freedom camping sites are to be modified at Te Matau a Pohe bascule bridge (Hatea River), Finlayson/Reyburn Lane beside the Whangārei Town Basin and at Parua Bay.

Strohush said freedom camping was polarising and had limited social licence.

Last month more than 1300 people took part in the council's online freedom camping survey. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they supported freedom camping for self-contained vehicles. But that support dropped by more than half to only 19 percent when non-self-contained vehicles were also included.

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