RATEPAYERS will continue to subsidise ‘free’ camping at Franklin River Reserve, with South Gippsland Shire Council apparently of the belief that the benefits outweigh the costs.
The decision taken by councillors at their meeting last week to continue to permit camping at the pretty reserve was unanimous, though councillors acknowledged that it would not please everyone. A robust discussion preceded the vote to arrive at what one councillor described as “a sensible compromise”. Cr Andrew McEwen said it was a difficult issue, but added that it was “part of the fabric of our community to have free camping”.
“Free camping is ratepayer funded camping,” admitted Cr Lorraine Brunt, who was one of the last to come around to the majority view. She then expressed the hope that the various measures Council would be putting in place would ameliorate the situation.
Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks, on the other hand, said he’d like to see more free camping areas.
Rachel Brown, who runs the nearby commercial caravan park, ‘Toora Tourist Park,’ and has long opposed free camping at Franklin River Reserve, was in the public gallery to hear the decision. She could hardly contain her disappointment and fury.
Afterwards, she told The Mirror: “The council budget for servicing Franklin River Reserve blew out by 115 per cent last year and they want to spend even more money this year! If I ran my small business like this I would be broke!”
“This council does not appear to have a problem spending ratepayers’ money to fund free holidays for international visitors and self-funded retirees. I thought free camping was dig a hole for your toilet and take all your rubbish with you. No cost to the user, no cost to the environment or the ratepayers.
“Is free camping in our towns more important than opening the Foster Pool regular hours or building a new toilet block in the small park next to the ambulance station in Foster, or along the rail trail or the Toora Recreation Reserve?
“I could list a lot of needy projects that would benefit ratepayers and visitors. All I can say is that our council must have more money than they let on – and for those that had a rude rate notice this week, now you know why!”
Drew Studham, who runs Prom Central Caravan Park at Foster, was also bitterly disappointed with Council’s decision to persevere with free camping in direct competition with his business.
He said that now Council was running caravan parks for itself (at Yanakie and Long Jetty Port Welshpool) the councillors should appreciate how difficult it was to make a living from a caravan park. He said allowing free camping at Port Franklin took business away from him and, as if that was not bad enough, his rates were going towards subsidising the free camping!
Free camping at the Reserve has been a contentious issue for some time. The matter was resolved to some extent (though never satisfactorily for the competing accommodation providers) through the 2014 Recreational Vehicle (RV) Strategy, which with self-contained RVs in mind, set out support for 48-hour free-of-charge camping at the Reserve.
The 2015/16 summer season, however, saw a substantial increase in free-of-charge camping at the Reserve, with a consequent strain on the existing infrastructure and an increase in maintenance requirements. A report was prepared for Council. The report noted that free camping was allowed for a maximum of 48 hours, as stated on signage at the Reserve, but campers were extending their stays. Monitoring of the campgrounds was estimated to cost about $15,000 each year.
Furthermore, Council’s RV Strategy budgeted for maintenance costs of $30,000 p.a. but these proved to be 115% higher over the 2015/16 summer.
The report noted that some accommodation providers in the vicinity of the Reserve had raised their concerns with Council regarding the extent of free camping, the impacts on the Reserve and on their businesses, but it also noted that Council had received positive feedback from other businesses in the area that benefited from increased visitation to the area. No figures are provided and no cost-benefit analysis appears to have been completed, though the report lists the many favourable comments of visitors to the Reserve.
Ms Brown carried out her own unofficial survey of some of the campers and found that a mere 15% were self-contained campers (contrary to the stated aims of the RV Strategy); 45% said they would still visit the area if they could not free camp, as they wanted to see the Prom; 50% did not know there was a town called Toora just up the road; the majority said they purchased food at major supermarkets and not locally; and all of them said they only purchased fuel locally if their tanks were low.
Ms Brown presented her findings to Council on the morning of the meeting. Arguing the case against free camping at the Reserve, she noted that over the two months of the survey there was a total of 1700 individual campsites at the Reserve, averaging 29 per night, and if 50% of these campers had stayed at a commercial caravan park it would have resulted in an extra 850 nights of business “which equates to at least $23,000 of lost revenue”.
She added: “A 2012 report into the economic benefit of caravan holiday parks to their local community demonstrated that for every $1 of park income, $1.38 of local economic activity is generated” and extrapolated the figures to assert that the lost revenue would have contributed at least $32,000 of economic activity into the local community.
Ms Brown said that while she was not against free camping in general, she was certainly against free camping where it is in direct competition with a commercial alternative.
Refuting the argument that free camping at the Reserve increased tourism to the region, she said that the existing caravan parks could easily accommodate the campers at the reserve. “Admittedly, some of these campers would not come if they had to pay for a site, but do we really need to subsidise them to the tune of $50,000 per year? The other argument is that the local businesses need the money that these free campers spend. Firstly, why does Council play favourites with businesses in the shire and provide a service (at a cost) that may benefit some businesses but certainly has a negative impact on other businesses. This does not seem fair. Secondly, why not just give these businesses a cash handout? It would cost the ratepayers less than the proposal in this report.”
Ms Brown pointed out that other councils around Victoria were gradually realising that “not all tourism is good tourism” and were closing or not supporting free camping because of the misuse and the maintenance costs.
She said that she would prefer to see free camping banned, but realising this was unlikely she had a few suggestions. These included: fencing to reduce the usage and help limit the damage to the reserve; a sign prohibiting the emptying of chemical toilet cassettes which contributed to the septic issue and indicating there are dump points in Toora and Foster; signage at both entrances indicating self-contained vehicles only; regular updating of rules on social media sites such as WikiCamps.
“And perhaps on the new information sign you could list the caravan parks available in the area as a possible alternative for these campers!” concluded Ms Brown. “This would be supporting existing caravan park operators.”
Council followed most of the recommendations of the shire officers, though it did tinker with them to reach a “compromise”. There will be an allocation of $15,000 in recurrent expenditure to enforce the rules at the Reserve and up to approximately $40,000 in the 2016/17 Capital Works program to construct fencing, gates, bollards etc to limit access and define camping areas. This will be done “in consultation with the Franklin River Landcare group” which councillors are hopeful will reduce costs, though there are no details.
Council will also erect new signs at the entrance of the Reserve and on the public amenities, stipulating that: open fires and solid fuel BBQs are not allowed; campers and visitors to the Reserve must take their rubbish with them; 48 hour camping only; substantial penalties may apply.
In a sop to local caravan park owners, neighbouring caravan parks will be listed on signage at the Reserve and dump points (at Toora Tourist Park and at Foster) will be pointed out.
The window has been left open for change – service levels at the Reserve will be reviewed in conjunction with a review of the RV Strategy. Whether anything changes, however, remains to be seen.