North East farmers wanting to open up their properties to campers through an online platform are hoping a review of legislation will simplify the approval process.
But the Victorian body representing caravan park operators warns there has to be a level playing field.
The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning is reviewing regulation relevant to caravan parks and movable dwellings.
A consultation paper released in May has specifically referenced Youcamp, which allows property owners to charge campers on their land, as among the "new platforms to search for and book accommodation".
There are 17 properties listed on Youcamp within 100 kilometres of Wodonga, ranging from $11 per person, to $100 per night.
Youcamp co-founder James Woodford said under the current regulations, landholders applying to have camping on their property were "forced to go through the same process as if they're putting in a caravan park".
"That's an old-fashioned idea, as nowadays a lot of travellers are in fully self-contained caravans," he said.
"If hosts want to go to a bigger scale, we agree that they should have to put in more of a bigger application.
"But it should be pretty easy to get approval for a couple people to camp on your property, who have their own toilets and showers."
Youcamp, established in 2013, does not require property owners to have council approval to list their sites online, but every listing comes with coverage by the company's insurance.
Mr Woodford said there were "chaotic inconsistencies in state and local laws around agritourism".
"In NSW you can have up to a certain amount of people camp for a certain amount of nights a year," he said.
"In Victoria, we've had dozens of sites shut down; a lot of councils have taken a really hard-line approach."
Mr Woodford said one exception was Wangaratta council, who were "leading the way".
Farm gates open
Moyhu hobby farmers Lisa and Darren Cogger first learned of Youcamp watching The Great Australian Doorstep, hosted by Peter "Spida" Everitt.
"We thought, 'Maybe we could do that'," Mrs Cogger said.
"We sat on it for a while and then looked at Youcamp's webpage, which had a lot of information.
"They responded really quickly to other questions we had.
"There was a huge amount of negotiating with council, but it was positive, as they were more than willing to work through any issues.
"We've capped numbers, we have an emergency management plan, and we have approvals for toilets we provide.
"We've agreed for that all to be shared as a case study for others."
Ellimatta was listed on the website in November.
"It went live on the Wednesday before the Melbourne Cup long weekend and a booking was made that night," Mrs Cogger said.
"We have six designated camp sites and we book out during holiday periods.
"People are looking for guaranteed space, and a lot of them like the security of being on a private property.
"We live in a pretty spectacular part of the world and we get to share it."
The Coggers don't rely on the income Youcamp provides; their motivation is to meet the identified need and promote tourism in the area.
But Mr Woodford said many other farmers were "absolutely desperate for the extra income".
"This is something councils need to deal with, as it makes farming life more sustainable and it's good for city people to see how farms really work," he said.
Ellimatta was the first Youcamp property to be approved by Wangaratta council.
Throughout this year, council's development services director Stephen Swart has been negotiating with other landholders.
"Depending on the site and what the zoning is, they may need a planning permit, or they may have to register as a caravan park and that includes a number of things such as a fire safety report," he said.
"There was one instance where a planning permit wasn't required.
"We have policies that encourage tourism, and we also have the responsibility to administer regulations.
"We are trying to find a balance between these two things."
After Wangaratta, there are a number of listings in Towong, Alpine and Indigo.
Indigo's planning and corporate services director Greg Pinkerton said his council had not received any planning permit applications relating to a Youcamp facility.
"Discussions about opportunities and requirements have been held with several landowners, but no applications have yet been lodged," he said.
"Approval is required from council before these sites commence operation and we ensure that various environmental and safety requirements are met."
Indigo council will be preparing a response to the sunset review of the regulations.
The "one-size-fits-all-model" of the regulatory framework has been raised as an issue by multiple stakeholders, according to the DELWP consultation paper.
Registration categories for different types of parks have been suggested, such as;
- Bush/primitive for short-term camping on basic Crown or private land sites
- Tourist parks with no residents
- Mixed use for short-term and long-term occupiers
- Residential only, with self-contained dwellings
DELWP poses 87 questions in the paper, including whether the registration period of three years for operators is adequate, and whether councils should be required to inspect parks.
Lake Anderson Caravan Park in Chiltern would fall under the 'mixed use' category.
Ty Bates, who bought the park with his wife Esther in 2015, said the three-year registration period was a good fit, but some requirements for the renewal process were outdated.
"It seems to be a hangover from days gone by," Mr Bates said.
"Mandatory inspections would be a waste of time; it's already in my best interest to ensure what we do is safe for our customers.
"There are things that are of no concern to council; I've heard about councils inspecting cutlery in cabins.
"It's one thing to get your permissions, but the insurance is the main thing - they are who you are answering to." The Victorian Caravan Parks Association is working on the regulation review.
Chief executive Elizabeth White commended DELWP's efforts to consult stakeholders, and said her association had put forward a self-registration scheme for park operators.
"There is a real opportunity to remove a lot of the red tape that drives us bonkers and probably drives the council staff bonkers," she said.
"Self-registration could be independently audited and monitored."
Ms White is still consulting with her members about the proposal for registration categories.
"We have other problems with bush camps; you get local councils turning parts of a reserve into free camping, when there's a commercial caravan park nearby paying full rates and all the extra costs," she said.
"Our argument remains the same (for Youcamp); you're still setting up a caravan park, as the definition in the act is somewhere that provides accommodation sites that people pay for.
"Why would a farmer not be required to pay all the registration and other costs?"
Mr Bates, who has worked hard over the past four years to improve his park, agreed.
"I've got a soft spot for farmers, because they have the hardest boss in the world," he said.
"I would never knock another source of income for them.
"But having a level playing field would not be unreasonable."
Mr Woodford said there had to be regulation for the sector that also covers Youcamp, but not a blanket approach.
"At the beginning, we had a lot of push-back from council-owned caravan parks and campgrounds saying we would steal their business, but we very rarely hear that any more," he said.
"Firstly, campers who want to stay on a Youcamp property are looking for something different, and secondly the biggest demand we see is around Christmas and holidays, when caravan parks are packed.
IN OTHER NEWS:
"We have to be considerate of neighbours, and we need to make sure we're protecting the environment.
"Everybody would prefer to be legal, but the problem with bad laws is they force good people to act in ways they don't want to."
Feedback on caravan park and movable dwellings regulations review consultation paper is open until Sunday, June 23, at engage.vic.gov.au.
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