Stricter freedom camping rules: Councils face High Court challenge

7:50 pm on 6 April 2021

Freedom camping rules in two popular tourist regions are being challenged in the High Court by a national caravan group for being too restrictive.

Campervan, motorhome, RV, freedom camping.

Photo: Unsplash / Hanson Lu

The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association board has agreed to ask the High Court to review the Marlborough District Council's new freedom camping bylaw. The association is challenging similar rules in the Queenstown-Lakes district.

Queenstown-Lakes was the second-most popular freedom camping destination in the South Island before the coronavirus lockdown and Marlborough was the fourth-most popular, according to research by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Marlborough has since put an end to freedom camping at eight council sites and ruled visiting vehicles must be self-contained. The association said it found those actions were "disproportionate and unreasonable".

It also believed the public was not consulted about a second drafting of the bylaw, and that the bylaw undermined the Freedom Camping Act, which guided the bylaw review, and said councils "must not absolutely prohibit freedom camping" in their regions.

Association chief executive Bruce Lochore said Marlborough's councillors had failed in their duties by "ignoring" an independent expert hired by the council to conduct a region-wide freedom camping review. The expert recommended the council allow freedom camping everywhere except certain sites, open up to four new freedom camping sites in the region, and close another two.

Instead, councillors agreed to not open new sites and close eight existing ones after the bylaw's proposals drew the ire of residents.

"They paid people for the work, then the council ignored it," Lochore said.

Lochore said the association's lawyers had been instructed to submit their case to the High Court "as quickly as they [could]". He was unsure which High Court the case would be taken to, or when.

"It's just disappointing that we have to do this. We've spent years trying to talk to [the Marlborough District Council] sensibly ... If they'd taken that professional advice, the council wouldn't be here."

A council spokesperson said this week it was inappropriate for the council to comment as it involved the potential for legal action.

The association had been preparing to challenge Queenstown-Lakes District Council's freedom camping rules, put down in late 2019, for similar reasons when New Zealand went into lockdown.

It held off on asking for a judicial review last year, so the council could focus on managing the effects of the nationwide lockdown.

"We tried to work with the council [last year]. We'd already informed them we were going to take them to court, but we wanted to create the opportunity for a solution, so we didn't have to. But that failed."

Queenstown-Lakes District Council chief executive Mike Theelen said in a statement the council was seeking legal advice.

Queenstown's new freedom camping bylaw required vehicles visiting council sites to be self-contained and move on after two nights, after tourists failed to respect the areas they camped in.

Theelen said the council had already begun reviewing the bylaw.

"Our district has long been a mecca for freedom campers of all shapes and sizes and the [council's freedom camping] bylaw review in 2019 sought to balance the needs and expectations of campers and our local communities, whose locations often bore the brunt of overuse and, at times, very anti-social behavior (sic) by some."

Queenstown-Lakes District Council said it was committed to working with the association to achieve an "amenable outcome".

Thames-Coromandel District Council had to rewrite its freedom camping bylaw in 2014 after a High Court judge found it to be illegal and in contradiction with itself, siding with the association.

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