This article first appeared on Mt Albert Inc and is published here with permission.

Scores of city parks and public carparks will be opened up to freedom campers as Auckland Council moves to meet its responsibilities under national legislation.

In an action certain to raise concerns in the suburbs, council officers are looking to satisfy the provisions of the 2011 Freedom Camping Act by creating freedom camping zones on council-owned land across the supercity.

While it is a proposal yet to get past the politicians, it seems inevitable major changes are on the way – perhaps in time for next summer’s rush of tourists in campervans.

Local boards, looking after the interests of their own communities, are wary of providing parks for overnight stays – and the Albert Eden Local Board has already put its foot down, describing the step as “foolish”.

But they and the city’s governing body may have no choice.

Officers working on a new bylaw are understood to have earmarked a number of high-profile local parks, like Phyllis Reserve and Fowlds Park in Mt Albert, and Coyle Park in Pt Chevalier, among hundreds of potential citywide freedom camping spots.

In the Albert-Eden area alone (covering Pt Chevalier, Waterview, Owairaka, Mt Albert, Morningside, Sandringham, Kingsland, Mt Eden, Balmoral, Epsom and Greenlane) around 80 sites are being looked at.

Most dedicated camping zones will cover a limited number of parking spaces within parks or adjacent to them, so it doesn’t mean a backpacker will be able to stick up a pup tent under a shady tree in an approved site.

But the Albert-Eden board has decided it would not be possible to control campervans sprinkled across its patch and has given officers a brusque “no thanks”.

That position – likely to be replicated to some extent in most of the 21 supercity local boards taking part in the consultation process – will carry some weight as concerns are raised over how a new bylaw can be adequately policed.

The boards have some sway because they are the guardians of council-owned land in their areas. But their influence is likely to count for little because of the power of the 2011 Freedom Camping Act introduced before the Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand.

To deal with the influx of rugby tourists, the legislation allowed freedom camping on all council and conservation land not under other regulatory control (like the 1977 Reserve Act or a local bylaw). It does not permit a blanket ban on camping on council property.

Auckland has fallen behind other parts of the country where most local authorities have already taken steps to meet at least the spirit of the statute, trying to find a balance between protecting the interests of their communities and meeting the expectation of tourists and domestic visitors. It has proved a real headache everywhere.

At the moment, the supercity is effectively “protected” by legacy bylaws that tightly restrict freedom camping to a few sites in outer parts of Auckland, although people will always illegally try their luck in quiet corners.

Under those bylaws – confirmed in 2015, expiring in 2020, and supported by other more general bylaws over behaviour in public places – 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.

In other parts of Auckland, the council has relied on a range of old bylaws simply banning camping. But that position doesn’t meet the quite specific requirements of the Act.

To some extent the council has crossed its fingers, hoping no one made a legal challenge as it worked its way towards a new bylaw respecting the statute.

Now those legacy bylaws are up for review – with the act itself at Government level – and the council is poised to substantially boost the number of sites accepting visiting campervans, caravans, wagons and tents for overnight stays.

But hundreds of sites are being targeted in the lead-up to the drafting of the bylaw, most of them apparently in existing car-park spaces, and it will be up to the politicians to decide which places make the final cut.

When they do, it will be a matter of what’s excluded rather than what’s included – because of that legislative requiremert for all council land to be available unless it’s listed under the Reserves Act or meets tight criteria.

In Auckland, 60-70 per cent of parks are gazetted under the Reserves Act, and it is illegal for campers to use them, though a council can change that status through a reserve management plan, if one exists.

But hundreds of council-owned parks and small reserves – and simple carparks adjacent to them – are among the other 30 or 40 per cent, and they are in line to open up to freedom campers.

Under the Act, a council cannot prevent camping in those areas unless it decides a ban is needed to protect the area and access to it, and the health and safety of people who may visit. Those may be difficult criteria to meet in many cases where camping numbers will be small.

The bylaw, when it is drafted, will probably only name the parks, reserves and carparks where freedom camping is forbidden.

Elsewhere, signs will be installed giving restrictions (like maximum days allowed) and will detail whether sites are open to all campers, or just those in self-contained wagons with built-in toilets.

In locations where there are public toilets – which is the case with many of the bigger parks – vehicles without facilities will probably be welcome. That may include standard station wagons, say, with a lowered rear seat to make way for a mattress. Or a car in which people are dossing down across the seats.

General community concerns will be the same as they are everywhere: while most visitors will be respectful and follow the rules, others will make a mess and noise. Vehicles without toilets will end up in self-contained-only areas, and everyone knows what that means.

Then there’s the issue of homeless people sleeping in cars and deciding that long-term freedom camping offers a solution until a state house becomes available.

The legislation allows a council to issue on-the-spot fines of $200, but policing the new bylaw will be a real challenge for a council with major budget problems.

A small team of compliance officers is already stretched beyond capacity and handling a wide-ranging new bylaw across a city that extends from Wellsford beyond Pukekohe and out to Muriwai and Clarks Beach.

The legislation has caused strife around the country as young international visitors, the tourism campervan industry – and so-called “Gypsy truckers” and the Grey Nomad brigade of retired New Zealanders – pressure existing sites or park illegally, knowing there is little chance of drawing a penalty.

Auckland is the gateway for most of the 3.4 million tourists a year that come to New Zealand and the council estimates 320 freedom camping vehicles a day are either travelling on the region’s roads or parked in public places over summer, injecting an estimated $1.2m a month to the city’s economy.

To keep its 2020 deadline – and at least partly satisfy the growing demand of freedom campers – the council ran a trial over the late summer of 2017 in which eight of the 21 local boards nominated a total of 25 potential sites.

Rodney offered eight sites, Franklin and Hibiscus and Bays each approved five, Howick nominated four and Maungakiekie-Tamaki, Puketapapa and Albert-Eden (at the Western Springs Garden carpark) one each.

The local experience at Western Springs wasn’t great, with some freedom campers ignoring restrictions and overstaying their welcome – leading to a blunt reaction from the Albert Eden board when it came time to sit down to review the trial and plan for the future.

Board chair Dr Peter Haynes explains: “There are only half-a-dozen enforcement officers for the entire Auckland isthmus, and they’re expected to enforce a range of bylaws – from signage, to illegal rubbish dumping, to dogs in controlled areas, to alcohol in alcohol ban areas.

“Adding freedom camping across the city, potentially in 80 parks in the Albert-Eden area alone, would be foolish. There is no way they could possibly enforce the rules without a massive increase in resourcing.

“We’ll see the problems that have been reported all over the country, only in greater numbers because we are the gateway to the country and boast some premier attractions.”

With the draft bylaw due to hit the desks of councillors in a couple of months, and the final version expected to be passed by the end of the year, the by-product of a certain bodily function that’s caused problems around the country may be about to hit the fan in Auckland.

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